by Foong Swee Fong
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This human weakness has long been observed, but was highlighted and made famous by Lord Acton, a 19th century British Catholic historian, writer and politician.
In his correspondence with Bishop Creighton, Archbishop of the Church of England, he criticized the corrupt, even criminal behavior of high office holders: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases”
He added, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
His famous phrase is regularly quoted because it accurately captures a universal human truth — that the longer one holds power, and the more absolute the power, the more one’s sense of morality diminishes.
When the People’s Action Party (PAP) first sought power in the 1950s, they were keenly aware of the people’s abhorrence of the abuse of power by the British and Japanese authorities here whilst in power, and thus, sought to be “pure and incorruptible”, which is symbolized by their white uniform and logo.
Indeed, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) led by example and chose to stay at his relatively humble home at Oxley Road rather than the Istana after the PAP formed the government, and Goh Keng Swee would drive to work in his beat up Morris rather than be chauffeured in a state car. The public’s eyes were on the PAP. Not only had they to be incorruptible, they had to be seen to be so.
When Phey Yew Kok, PAP MP for Boon Teck and President of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was suspected of embezzlement of union funds in 1979, the PAP did not hesitate to call in the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) to investigate. However, Phey absconded before he could be charged.
A few years later, in 1986, Teh Cheang Wan, Head of the HDB and Minister for National Development, was investigated for accepting bribes. Teh maintained his innocence, but committed suicide before he could be charged.
Thus, despite the human failings of its members, the PAP strived to maintain its pure as white image, not hesitating to investigate and prosecute any wrongdoings within their ranks.
But the longer they held power, the greyer the white became, and the bigger the cracks in their armour of incorruptibility.
In 1996, about ten years after Teh’s suicide, LKY and his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) faced questions over their acquisition of first rights and substantial discounts to purchase several condominium units at Nassim Jade and Scotts 28.
Some of their family, as well as extended family members, were also rumoured to have bought units for themselves under favourable conditions.
It became a political hot potato for then-PM Goh Chok Tong. He tasked Finance Minister Richard Hu and Deputy Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Koh Beng Seng, to investigate.
The findings were shared in parliament, a house controlled by the PAP, and significantly, LKY was given free rein to defend himself during the proceedings.
At about the same time, Yazhou Zhoukan (Asiaweek) asked Tang Liang Hong, who was then a prominent lawyer, his opinion about the saga.
He replied, “Why wasn’t this matter handed over to a professional body like the CAD or the CPIB? They are government departments not only rich in experience, but also well-known for being firm and impartial. They would be more detached and their reports would have been more convincing to the people.”
Shortly after, Tang Liang Hong came under fire from the PAP for bringing up the Nassim Jade saga while contesting the 1997 General Elections as a WP member in Cheng San GRC. He was later sued by eleven PAP politicians, including LKY, LHL, GCT and Tony Tan, for making statements that questioned their integrity.
The Nassim Jade saga set a new standard of morality, albeit a lower one, corruption in the form of “ownself check ownself”, as episodes involving “conflict of interest” and “abuse of power” became more frequent and blatant.
In 2011, the company managing the town council software, Action Integrated Management (AIM), abruptly terminated the contract with Aljunied Hougang Town Council (AHTC), shortly after the Workers’ Party (WP) had won Aljunied GRC, thus severely disrupting its ability to deliver town council services to its new residents.
To the uninitiated, it seemed a business decision, but it turned out that AIM, a $2 shell company headed by three PAP ex-MPs, had bought the town council software, which had been jointly developed by the fourteen town councils under PAP’s control with taxpayers money, for a song.
It then leased the software back to the town councils charging a monthly fee with a termination clause. This took place a few months before the General Elections. As it turned out, WP won Aljunied GRC from the PAP, and the contract was duly terminated, putting WP in a fix.
When news of AIM leaked out, clear-headed people were appalled, not only by the price at which AIM had bought the software as well as the dirty tactics of the PAP vis-a-vis the Opposition but, more importantly, the blatant conflict of interest and abuse of power – in essence, PAP, as the government, sold the public property under its control, to PAP, the private entity.
By all accounts, they crossed the red line, but the PAP just didn’t seem able to comprehend the gravity of the transgression or chose to ignore it.
Then in 2017, about two years after LKY’s death, LHL who is now Prime Minister, was publicly accused by his siblings of being a “dishonourable son” by using state resources to try to reverse their father’s will to demolish his house at 38 Oxley Road.
The public feud spiralled and called into question the “conduct and integrity of the Government and our public institutions”, as LHL himself put it.
The honourable thing to do was to sue in an independent court, but instead, LHL opted to defend his, as well as his government’s reputation in parliament, knowing full well more than two-thirds of the parliamentarians were from his Party, just as his father did in the Nassim Jade saga twenty years ago; both unperturbed by the obvious conflict of interest and abuse of state resources.
But Ridout-gate has got to take the cake for brazenness. Surely, Shanmugam and Vivian have got to realize that living in their recently rented black and white bungalows with settings and size second only to the Istana, will start tongues wagging given that they are public figures?
People would talk regardless if the houses were rented above board, regardless if there were a conflict of interest given that the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) is under Shanmugam’s purview.
Living so ostentatiously as public servants when almost all the people live in relative shoeboxes and working hard to pay off their housing loans, is bound to irk them, even metaphorically, slap them in their faces.
Do the two ministers not remember that a young LKY chose to live in Oxley Road rather than the Istana because he did not want people to think that their leaders were living in opulence while they were eking out a living, as many still are?
Are they so intoxicated by power that they cannot grasp the moral depravity of their decisions to live it up at Ridout Road? Or they couldn’t care less because they feel they are above the people?
It is saddening that our leaders have sunk so low. They would do well to remember that the office does not sanctify the holder of it.
As Lord Acton had observed of human nature – the longer one holds power, the more one’s sense of morality diminishes.
The PAP has forgotten that their mandate to govern is bestowed on them by the people, given that each and every election had been foregone conclusions that they would form the next government.
They have gradually but surely begun to feel that it is theirs to rule and to lord over the people. The end has learned to justify the means – conflicts of interest, “ownself check ownself”, and seemingly acts of abuse of power have all become par for the course in the name of “happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”
Such is not only within the party but has spread to government institutions and government-linked companies.
The evil we need to guard against is not so much individual politicians or individual political parties per se, but rather, the concentration of power, for it leads man to be evil. When power is diffused, man will check on man, and we will all be better off in the long run, including those hitherto intoxicated by power.
For quite a while now, we, Singaporeans have been tempting fate by repeatedly returning the PAP to power with a super-majority in Parliament despite growing evidence of their diminished morality. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We ignore Lord Acton’s wise words at our own peril!
What we need to do is to break up the concentration of power so that there will be checks and balances: a stronger opposition in parliament to check or take over from the PAP; freedom of information and freedom of the press so that there will be transparency; freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly so that ordinary people can speak out for their rights; and independent labour unions so that workers can fight back against the onslaught of powerful and greedy employers, who are often aided by the government.
At the end of the day, we cannot leave matters blindly to the government, after all, they are humans subjected to the tendency of moral corruption by authority, but keep a watchful eye on them and call them out whenever it rears its ugly head.
We get the government we deserve.
This was first published on Foong Swee Fong’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission