April 9, 2018

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[CLICK TO ENLARGE] Wong Hong Kuan, director of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau
[CLICK TO ENLARGE] Wong Hong Kuan, director of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau

Corruption is pervasive: it exists at every level of government in all corners of the world, transcending ideology and political regime. Given the potential for corruption to poison any form of government, we must seek to understand it better and develop institutions to root it out.

So said SIPA’s Ester Fuchs in introducing Wong Hong Kuan, the director of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, and Mark G. Peters, commissioner of the NYC Department of Investigations. The two men visited SIPA on April 2 to speak on anticorruption efforts in their respective cities.

The speakers later joined a panel discussion with Barnard political scientist Xiaobo Lü and NYU law professor Jennifer H. Arlen, and SIPA assistant professor Paul Lagunes, who moderated.

Wong gave a brief overview of his organization’s structure, mandate, and oversight. He highlighted how Singapore is among the least corrupt countries in the world, noting its a “zero-tolerance” approach to corruption control. Most prosecutions by his agency have involved private-sector individuals, with prosecutions of public officials exceedingly rare.

Wong said strong political will is the foundation for any anti-corruption framework, and noted four additional key elements: strong anti-corruption laws, an independent and fair judiciary, a responsive public service, and an effective enforcement body.

In his conclusion, Wong noted future challenges such as large financial flows (because of Singapore’s position as a financial hub) and rapid advances in technology.

New York City’s Department of Investigations, Peters said, is one of the oldest anti-corruption units in the world. It acts as an inspector general for the city, releasing detailed reports on its investigations to provide transparency and accountability.

The unit’s centralized structure, Peters suggested, allows the investigative body to speak with a unified voice on key issues. He said the federal government should adopt a similar structure, with a national inspector general having a mandate to oversee all federal departments.

Peters cited examples of DOI investigations: It arrested a state assemblywoman from Brooklyn who had used taxpayer dollars for personal benefit, uncovered Department of Correction officials who smuggled contraband into city prisons, and exposed city health officials who were siphoning for personal use money meant for food-stamp recipients. DOI also looks into mismanagement by city departments, which creates the fertile ground for corruption to take root.

In the panel discussion, Arlen said decent wages for civil servants reduced their incentive to take bribes. She also asked Wong and Peters about deferred prosecution agreements in Singapore and the potential use of bounties in New York to encourage more reporting of corruption. Lü noted the investigative bodies’s cost effectiveness and asked if a recent Supreme Court ruling had elevated the level of proof required to convict public officials.

Following a lively Q&A session, Lagunes concluded the event with a brief statement that recognized Singapore and New York City as case studies of progress in the fight against corruption.

The event was hosted by SIPA’s Center on Global Economic Governance, the concentrations in Urban and Social Policy and Economic and Political Development, and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

— Kevin Gilmartin MPA ’18