Two recent stories serve as a useful reminder that Southeast Asia’s oasis of good governance (and favorite of those who wish to claim democracy impedes development) is not as clean as many people think.
First came the story, picked up by the Times of a world-class gangster suspected by European authorities of having fixed hundreds of football matches across the world. So far, requests for extradition have been quietly denied.
Second came the Financial Times story on a young American engineer who died in Singapore last year, and whose death was not seriously investigated at the time. The engineer was working on a project tied to the Chinese electronics giant Huawei, a company whose presence in the US has come under serious scrutiny for ties to the Chinese national security apparatus. He may have been murdered; he may have killed himself. The key thing is that the Singaporean police did not open an inquest until after pressure from the US ambassador, even after the engineer’s parents raised concerns–and presented evidence–of foul play.
Singapore is, in many ways, a model city. It is a great place to do business, and its civil service is widely-regarded as one of the least-corrupt in the world. But “corruption-free” has a limited meaning. Singapore’s rulers do not systematically enrich themselves at the expense of the state, as so, so many developing country leaders have done.
Good on you, Lee Kuan Yew.
Although Singapore’s civil servants are known for being relatively impervious to bribes, they are part of a system that has interests, and sometimes those interests override the immediate need to provide, say, justice to the family of a dead young man.
Business-friendly means, in practice, close ties between government and business. Large companies like Huawei have the ear of leaders in Singapore, and one’s word need not be backed up by suitcases of cash for it to matter to the people in charge. All that needed to happen was for someone important to say to someone else important, “We would appreciate it if you didn’t look too hard into this suicide,” and the simplest explanation available–that the engineer took his own life–becomes the official one. Corruption like that is endemic to, well, the world, but it is worse in places like Singapore because there is no free press that can call attention to misconduct of that kind. There is no one who can freely say, “Why has this not been looked into properly?” And there is no political opposition with the power to make hay over that kind of issue.
Singapore is an autocracy, and in autocracies, the rule of law is iffy at best. Contract enforcement may be golden, and civil servants may be impervious to bribes, but the system itself, with its lack of outside accountability and emphasis on protecting business (not people), ensures that from time to time, justice is not done.
As for who carried out the murder, if there was one, don’t forget (as the Dan Tan story should have reminded you) that Singapore is in Southeast Asia and a world capital of commerce. Which means Singapore is a good place to find people linked to the Triads, Yakuza, Singaporean mafia (whatever they are called), and the other unsavory elements that naturally crop up in such a place. There’s a reason Hong Kong action movies are all about gangsters; Singapore is about as far from there by plane as New York is from LA.
You want the rule of law, most of the time? You want justice? Singapore isn’t the place to go looking for that.