The Emperor’s Miscalculation

Not smelling like roses.

Yesterday, former Transport Minister S Iswaran faced 27 charges, including allegations of receiving tickets from businessman Ong Beng Seng for shows like Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. While the total value of these alleged favors, amounting to US$298,000, may seem insignificant compared to what kleptocrats running neighboring countries help themselves to, the situation has reignited discussions about ministerial salaries in Singapore.

Singapore’s political leaders are renowned for their high salaries, a practice endorsed by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who believed that generous remuneration could deter corruption by reducing the temptation to accept bribes. However, this approach is not unique to Singapore. Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing dynasty implemented a similar strategy, known as yanglian yin, or “silver to cultivate honesty,” over two centuries ago, aiming to maintain the integrity of his officials.

Despite offering significant financial incentives, such as salaries up to 100 times the basic wage, Yongzheng’s initiative ultimately failed to eradicate corruption. His experience underscores a fundamental truth: simply paying officials well is insufficient to ensure integrity. A comprehensive anti-corruption framework, supported by both the bureaucracy and the broader society, is essential.

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