What differentiates Singapore from the rest of the world?  

iswaran pap corruption

Over the weekend, the memes kept coming. Online personalities and media outlets were having a field day conjuring up hilarious content at the expense of ex-Transport Minister Iswaran. And Singapore.  

Theatre tickets and football matches, was that all it took to end an otherwise illustrious career in public service that spanned decades? It became the talk of the town. Because after months of speculation over what exactly Mr Iswaran did (or did not do), the result was anti-climactic and almost perplexing to many.  Some of memes also showed supposedly corrupt neighbouring politicians having a big laugh about those charges. 

In the absence of millions in ‘valuable goods’, is the government overreacting, hauling one of its own to court? That is because elsewhere, what Mr Iswaran had allegedly obtained would be considered so trivial it isn’t even worth a conversation, much less a lawsuit, so they claimed. From donations to political parties and lavishing ministers with perks, such acts are practically de rigueur in many parts of the world (even developed ones). Meanwhile, it is also not unheard of to find millions in aid gone missing from a country’s coffers, only to end up in an offshore account.   

Comparing these textbook examples of corruption with the 27 charges levied on Mr Iswaran, is it any wonder that the mocking continues at home and abroad? Overzealous, perhaps. But the Government is absolutely right in pursuing the case even when it meant taking a political hit. While the accusations against Mr Iswaran might seem “insignificant” and “trivial” in the grand scheme of things, it has highlighted just how seriously the PAP is against corruption. Forget F1 tickets and hotel stays. An obsession with righteousness will see the PAP doing the right thing, however small the gratification is. Moreover, this episode has also shown a new generation of Singaporeans that to be “whiter than white” is no platitude and extends beyond our fashion sense.   

Therefore, in a wholly unexpected way, the whole fiasco, rather than dent the image of the PAP, has provided it an opportunity to practise what it preaches – incorruptibility as a non-negotiable.   

A look back in history backs up this philosophy, with the rarity of corruption cases in Singapore not down to chance but good governance, integrity and discipline. For nearly six decades, the PAP has been almost pedantic in clamping down the smallest of misdemeanours others would not bat an eyelid. As the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “Singapore has to keep fighting corruption…The system works because everyone knows the Singapore government is prepared to act against the most powerful in the land.”  

And it did work, especially in boosting Singapore’s prestige on the world stage. Today, a scrupulously clean government has become synonymous with the Singapore brand. Foreign leaders know that Singapore can be relied upon as a trusted friend. Investors are assured of an open and transparent economy, one where they can safely pump in money without greasing anybody’s palms. Tourists can let their guard down and enjoy their holidays without fear of harassment due to a strict rule of law. Meanwhile, the trust Singaporeans feel towards the government is one of the highest in the world. It is a trust that holds society together and something the PAP Government will do everything in its power to strengthen and maintain.   

Finally, it is safe to say that, far from being stuffy and strait-laced, Singaporeans have shown their creativity and sense of humour over the Iswaran affair. However, let us not trivialise the proceedings as one involving a government making a mountain out of a molehill. Or worse, a case of political wayang and a waste of public resources for going after a veteran minister over inconsequential perks. While it is one thing to paint the PAP in a negative light in the name of partisanship, it is unacceptable to do so at the expense of an entire nation.   

After all, the standards of integrity imbued from the highest echelons of government to the little kids in school have long been a factor that sets Singapore apart from the world. Some would even say that it is the bread and butter for which Singapore exists. Without which, what sort of value would a small island without natural resources be to the world?   

Therefore, let us be careful what we wish for.  

In the months ahead, having an ex-Minister going into trial for graft charges have shattered an otherwise placid political landscape. There is little doubt that the opposition would cite this issue as a failure of the PAP to live up to expectations. On the contrary, the incident has allowed PAP to prove itself as a party that walks the talk. A willingness to act, to address the matter transparently, to debate it in Parliament and to let the judicial system work, without fear and prejudice. All of these are actions one would expect from an honest and upright government.