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PROFESSOR Jon S.T. Quah began doing research on corruption in 1977 when it was not fashionable or politically correct to do so. Today, more than 30 years later, he is still writing and giving presentations on corruption and governance in Asian Countries, public personnel management in Asian countries, administrative reforms in Singapore, and public policy in Singapore.
There are two stories he has not failed to share when he writes and presents on corruption, particularly on anti-corruption agencies (ACA). Each story led to the setting up of two of the most effective and successful ACAs in the Asia Pacific, if not the world.
The first story tells us about how widespread corruption was in Singapore during the British colonial period because the government lacked political will and made the serious mistake of relying on the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) to combat graft. In other words, the government had relied on the police to combat corruption in the police force.
The story then tells us of what was known as the Opium Hijacking scandal of October 1951 when a gang of robbers, including three police detectives, was caught stealing 1,800 pounds of opium, which exposed the police’s inability to curb corruption. Consequently, the ACB was replaced by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which was established a year later in September 1952. Learning from the British colonial government’s weak political will and mistake, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government retained the CPIB after assuming power in Singapore in June 1959 and strengthened it with more legal powers, budget, personnel and operational autonomy.
Today, the CPIB is more than just an effective and successful ACA. It is an institution that has earned its stripes fighting corruption among the country’s most powerful individuals – both in the police force and in Parliament. Through a record of successful actions against corrupt individuals, the CPIB has shown that it investigates any case in which corruption may be involved. It has been a driving force in making Singapore one of the least corrupt nations on earth.
The second story tells us of similar serious corruption problems in Hong Kong as the British colonial government too relied on the police to combat corruption. Like the colonial government in Singapore, the government relied on the ACB of the CID of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (RHKPF) to combat corruption even though the police were notoriously corrupt. Despite the ACB being upgraded to become the Anti-Corruption Office (ACO) in 1971, it remained ineffective in dealing with rampant police corruption.
The escape of a corruption suspect, then chief police superintendent Peter Godber, in June 1973, to Britain became the straw that broke the camel’s back. It angered the public and compelled Governor Murray MacLehose to appoint a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) to investigate the circumstances of Godber’s escape. MacLehose accepted the RCI’s recommendation to establish the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) ICAC as an independent ACA on 15 February 1974.