Address by Professor Cheong Hee Kiat at the International Conference on Governance and Corruption


1. Good morning, distinguished speakers and participants gathered here from around the world – or a good afternoon or good evening, depending on where you are joining us

2. Welcome to the inaugural International Conference on Governance and Corruption, organised by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (or SUSS). Though this conference is entirely online due to the pandemic, we take heart that we are able to connect speakers and participants from many parts around the world; from the Americas and Europe to Asia and the Pacific.

Theme of the Conference
3. The theme for this conference is Governance and Corruption in Uncertain Times. These are uncertain times, with disruptions galore. As at mid-October, cases of COVID-19 worldwide exceed 240 million, and more than 4.88 million have died. Staggering, and it is not over yet. The impact is not just in medical terms and deaths, but also in the global economy being profoundly affected. The IMF estimates that global growth contracted 3.1% in 2020, worse than during the 2008 global financial crisis. This year looks brighter, with IMF’s recent forecast of 6%, though growth around the world will be unevenly spread.

4. The impact of COVID-19 is wide-ranging and this is also felt in the areas of governance and corruption control, the subject matter for this conference.

Effects of COVID-19
5. What has changed, with COVID-19?

6. Face-masks are a norm, social distancing is practised, and constraints are imposed on travel and many activities – to varying degrees in various countries. We see now countries are opening up and relaxing their social restrictions, trying to be back to normal, but not yet still.

7. Jobs have been lost. Many changes have taken place in the social and economic landscape. Spectacularly, digital transformation has accelerated – e-commerce has truly taken off, with more businesses moving online. Teaching and learning has pivoted online, with students spending more time on home-based learning. Technology is extensively used by governments, businesses and citizens for official, business and social interactions. The digital pivoting offers fertile ground for loose governance and devious schemes to cheat. New norms of governance and new ways of ensuring corruption control must be created and effected.

8. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in a recent address that we must learn to live with COVID-19. Indeed, we should not fear COVID, but respect it and make changes so that we can carry on with our lives.

Why spotlight on governance and corruption?
9. As we navigate our way through the pandemic, it is imperative to turn the spotlight on governance and corruption – the relevance is in two aspects.

10. First, countries have rolled out policies and programmes to manage the pandemic and help their citizens. Good governance and corruption control are critical for this to happen effectively. With good governance, there can be confidence that policies, plans and programmes are well-designed and implemented to their best intentions. Public institutions need to work well, systems must be efficient, and public services and private entities have to function seamlessly together.

11. Second, the pace of developments in the pandemic is extremely rapid. Laws, regulations and public policies have to be enacted and implemented in double quick time, and with flexibility, because the contagion will not wait for our responses. With haste, problems can arise. Processes and controls may not follow the norm. For instance, in public procurement, the usual procedures, such as open competition, and adequate scrutiny, may be waived in order for essential supplies to be obtained quickly.

12. Speed aside, public expenditure has reached record levels. Governments are incurring unprecedented expenses to fight the pandemic and support the economy more public funds available, more opportunities for crime. This makes it even more critical to have a good system of governance and corruption control. If governance breaks down, ineffectiveness, corruption and other ills follow.

13. Studies have shown that corruption has indeed reared its ugly head during this pandemic. Before the pandemic, the UN had estimated that corruption and related crimes already cost developing countries about US$1.26 trillion per year. During the pandemic, episodes have occurred in some countries where procurement of supplies such as masks and ventilators was tainted by corruption, with Ministers and high-ranking officials involved. Bodies like the World Bank and Transparency International have sounded the alert, highlighting governance and corruption vulnerabilities that countries should manage as they contend with COVID-19. In the EU, the Global Corruption Barometer report in June this year showed that corruption worsened in the EU during the pandemic. Some 29% of EU residents surveyed admitted using personal connections to obtain medical attention and some 6% paid bribes to secure healthcare.

14. The threat of corruption is real and affects all parts of the world. It looks more endemic than COVID-19. Good governance and anti-corruption efforts must thus not be spared as governments spend huge sums fighting the pandemic.

Why did we organise this conference?
15. Let me share why we have organised this conference. As countries respond to COVID-19, there are learning points along the way with respect to governance and corruption control. What are the challenges to these aspects and how do we handle them? What can governments, the private sector and civil society do to enhance governance and corruption control in such uncertain times? How can the international community play a role? What needs to be done to support the fight against COVID-19 and to position ourselves for the future, beyond the pandemic? These and other questions would have been raised but we must share these issues and our views and experiences for learning, and ultimately, to act so that we can do better in our respective roles and bring better governance and corruption control in our societies. This conference provides such a platform for learning and sharing.

16. We have seven eminent professors, and leaders and professionals from anticorruption agencies, international organisations, businesses and non-governmental organisations. The private sector and civil society speakers and participants work in legal, compliance and advisory roles. International organisations such as the World Bank, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the Asian Development Bank and the OECD are represented, as are non-governmental organisations such as Transparency International, Open Government Partnership, Basel Institute on Governance, Nordic Business Ethics, Canadian Centre of Excellence for Anti-Corruption, and others. This talent mix will make for a rich discussion and great learning outcomes.

Continuous building of expertise
17. Singapore has a strong track record in governance and anti-corruption. We do well in various governance and anti-corruption rankings, for instance, the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In 2020, Singapore ranked 3rd least corrupt country globally in Transparency International’s table. It is a record that has been built since our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew laid down the principles of governance.

18. Our system works because different stakeholders - the government, public services, business community and the citizenry - play their part, enabling institutions and services to run efficiently and effectively, contributing to sound economic growth and stable societal development. Over time, the public has developed an intolerance for corruption, and this public ethos further strengthens our system of governance.

19. However, we know that governance and corruption control is a dynamic phenomenon and cannot be taken for granted. Attention has to be constantly paid to it, otherwise it can degrade and be overtaken by developments. The right leaders must be in place, who uphold integrity and rule of law, the laws must be in place and justice must be served, detection and enforcement must be effectively pursued, a clean culture must be developed and maintained. Once the cancer of corruption creeps in and is allowed to take hold, and worse, metastasize into the top echelons, it is almost impossible to eradicate. Hence, Singapore needs to continue to learn from others to improve its practices in governance and anti-corruption, and be on alert. There is no place for hubris.

20. I hope every country keeps the same zeal to sustain good governance and suppress corruption. It is not to be better than another. It is for the sake of the people, those who have placed their trust in governments, leaders and organisations to use to the fullest extent the resources they have been given, be these the country’s resources, taxes paid by the people, aid given to relieve impoverished conditions, profits made, etc., so that the people will fully benefit. And certainly, not to line the pockets of a few.

21. I hope that this inaugural conference will further contribute to the global efforts in building knowledge and expertise in the art of governance and corruption control, especially during these uncertain times.

22. On that note, let me wish everyone an enjoyable and fulfilling learning experience at this conference. Thank you.

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