Sunday, 20 May 2018

Corporate Corruption (Keppel Corp).

What I gather from reading the former Attorney General and current law professor's article this morning about punishing corruption (with specific reference to the Keppel Corp) is captured in three lessons. 

I'll dive straight into it here. 

Let me start with the first lesson, and it has something to do with history. 

Walter Woon ("WW") brought us back to Dec 1997 with this Straits Times headline: "Keppel fined $300,000 for giving $8.53m in bribes for contracts".

He then fast-forwarded to 2016 with the former CEO and president of ST Marine "(pleading) guilty in August and got 10 months' jail as well as a $100,000 fine." 

The bribe paid out was at least $24.9m between 2000 and 2011. 

Can you spot the difference in a 20-year time period?

Well, the difference is in who paid for the crime. In 1997, it was Keppel. The company was fined $300k- a slap on the corporate cufflinks. However, in 2016, it was the CEO (and others). They were jailed and fined for corruption.

The question here is, why weren't the people at the top jailed in 1997?
That was the same question JB Jeyaretnam pursued in Parliament when he asked whether action will be taken against the leaders in Keppel.

This was what the then Minister of State for Law (Ho Peng Kee) said:-

"...(the Public Prosecutor had decided) that the company should be prosecuted, not the employees who gave bribes. He did so after considering all the facts of the case, including the fact that they did not act for their own personal gain."

I will return to the issue on personal gain later in this post, but this is what WW wrote in his article about the fine:-

"Just fining companies is not enough; this only trims the weeds without digging out the roots."

And because the roots were not extricated completely then, the weeds unfortunately grew back with an increased in the bribery sum 20 years later. 

In 1997, it was $8.5m. In 2016, it tripled to $24.9m.

Now comes the second lesson of this post led by this inquiry: Is corruption a systemic problem in Keppel?

You see, in the 1997 corruption case, when only Keppel was fined, and the key players were not prosecuted, WW wrote that the CPIB "showed that based on ST Marine's records, this practice stretched back to at least 1996, which raises tantalising questions about how far and deep the cancer had metastasised within the group."

And if a cancer is best treated by early detection, the question is whether jailing the employees then (in 1997) would have at least arrested or control the "cancer spread"?

If "altruism" were the main factor in not jailing them, as the Public Prosecutor felt that "they did not act for their own personal gain," then WW's rejoinder in his article is that "altruism is not a motive impelling corporate employees to give bribes in return for business."

WW elaborated by saying that employees have KPIs to meet, and "more business translates into bigger profits" and this "in turn leads to enhanced bonuses and improve promotion prospects." The corporate package doesn't stop there.

There is also the prestige accorded to the top leaders for running a "successful" company. That's the glitters that shine in their resume. 

So, when you put the rewards in their proper context, you get a sense that "personal gain" comes in many forms, and altruism is furthest in the corporate mind. 

So, reading WW's article, I get the tingling sense that it is not so much the fine or personal gain or dealing with the root cause, but the issue is:-

"Is this a systemic problem? Can we then ever compete in a sterile, incorrupt system? Are we wearing our ideals on the cloak of duplicity?"

Mind you, it bears repeating that "based on ST Marine's records, this practice stretched back to at least 1996". 

That is what we know that we know. But what we don't know that we don't know may just lie far deeper beneath the dead calm. 

This leads me to my third and last lesson from the article, and it has to do with luck. 

WW wrote that "the executives of ST Marine were lucky to have got off lightly" for CBT.

He then mentioned the City Harvest case. 

In that case, "the heaviest jail sentence for CBT was three years and six months...The sum involved was about $24 million, not much different from the amount paid in bribes in the ST Marine case" - so wrote WW.

Of course, the City Harvest leaders were charged with falsification of accounts as well, but they had allegedly made full restitution (minus the opportunity costs and lost interest). 

So, one neutralises the other somewhat?

Yet, the leader of the charismatic pack got 3.6 years for $24m, and the leader of the technocratic pack got 10 months and a fine of $100k for $24m. Indeed, as WW puts it, "the executives of ST Marine were lucky to have got off lightly".

Alas, this post will not be complete without ending it in WW's own words. He wrote:-

"Despite Singapore's supposedly squeaky clean image, corruption does still exist, even among government-linked companies...Eradication of corruption requires that the humans responsible for the offences account for their misdeeds, no matter how influential or well connected they may be. If we want to have standards, we must be willing and able to defend them."

Mm...I'll leave the reading-between-the-lines to your May Day reflection. I hope I have not burdened you too much for the short holiday. Cheerz.

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