Wars money and politics have divided families for centuries – in the economic powerhouse of Singapore there can be another divisive factor – corruption. There’s a good chance, if you bribe or cheat, your own family will ostracise you, so says Hwee Hua Lim, and one of the former lieutenants to Singapore’s guiding spirit in its economic revolution Lee Kuan Yew.
Singapore’s war on corruption, along with tight control of its just over five million people through what its critics often call draconian laws, has been part of the transformation of the island from a rundown port, off the southern tip of Malaysia, into a manufacturing and financial powerhouse considered one of the most robust and open economies in the world. It holds lessons for South Africa as it tries to battle corruption on the road to economic recovery under its re-elected President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“People take a very dim view of corruption; no one wants anything to do with it. It is in our DNA. Even members of your own family won’t talk to you if you are found guilty of corruption,” says Lim, who was in Johannesburg this week to speak at a conference.
Lim cited a common sense example that South Africa and a score of other nations across the continent could learn from. It concerns government contracts that are very lucrative and highly prized in Singapore’s island economy. Each contract is ratified by three separate committees – one dealing with procurement, one with assessment and the third with awarding the contract. It is a system designed to make it difficult for one person to hold sway over the contracts.
There is also the Criminal Breach of Trust Act that covers business to stop everything from fraud, embezzling and bribery right down to misrepresenting financial products, says Lim.
“The penalties can be years in prison, depending on the amount of money involved,” says Lim.
“It is how we maintain our integrity as an economy. We take the view that no one in the world owes us a living and that no one is forced to do business with us. So we try to ensure clean fairness to encourage investors to put money into our economy.”
Lim believes South Africa, with its rich resources, can gather the political will to fight the corruption that has eaten away at the economy over the last decade.
“What it needs is a change of mind-set at the top and it will percolate down to the people,” she says.
Lim’s life mirrors the rise of Singapore that set its mind on economic growth following complete independence from Britain in 1965. Her parents arrived in Singapore, during World War Two, from China and her father eked out a living as a tea trader. The family of 11 lived in a two-bedroomed flat, yet with the education, at the heart of Singapore’s economic boom; Lim studied at Cambridge and became a name in business.
In 1996, she was elected to Parliament and in 2001 became the first ever woman cabinet member in Singapore. She spent seven years as a lieutenant to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015, and argues he was not as forbidding as many thought him to be.
“He was a visionary and used to say ‘fix it now and then we will find a better way of doing it’ Everyone through he was unapproachable, but he would always listen to people and learn from what they had to say. He was like a sponge,” chuckles Lim.