COMMENT Reading the encomiums to Dr Goh Keng Swee, the man his eulogists say was principally responsible for the templates that undergird modern Singapore, one is prompted to recall a discussion in the now defunct, Far Eastern Economic Review, on corruption.
The focus on corruption in a mid-1983 edition of the respected weekly stirred interest because several countries in East Asia were, at that juncture, on the cusp of taking the path towards economic development via infusions of foreign direct investment.
The issue of corruption – what attitude to take towards it, what degree of it to tolerate – was mulled over in the intellectual debate on what paths to take in the quest for economic development of the region.
The Review, as befit its status then as the must-read journal of governing circles in the region, rounded in on the topic in its highly regarded section, Fifth Column, whose editorial gravitas was equivalent to that of op-ed pages in stellar dailies in western capitals.
In its focus on corruption, the Review adverted to Goh’s arguments on the subject. The Singapore polymath had counseled zero tolerance. His arguments were espoused in the Harry G Johnson Memorial Lecture he gave to the Royal Society, London, in July 1983 on ‘Public Administration and Economic Development in LDCs (least developed countries)’.
The nub of Goh’s arguments, cited by the Review, was that corruption would add to costs, make national economies less competitive, and erode the moral and intellectual fiber of the civil service that must conceive, implement and monitor development policies.
Goh also argued that top civil servants ought to be remunerated at rates that were near to the levels enjoyed by captains of industry and top performers in the professions. His rationale: that was the only way to retain talent in the civil service and prevent a drain to the private sector.
Huntington: Corruption inevitable
The arguments arrayed against Goh’s rather puritanical stance were variations on the theme propounded by Samuel Huntington in his book ‘Political Order’, although the author was not cited in the article in Fifth Column.
Huntington is more renowned for his controversial clash of civilisations theory which saw conflict between cultures as the driving force of history following the fall of communism in 1989.
That thesis had diverted attention away from Huntington’s other, more compelling if less controversial theories, like the one on corruption as being inevitable in societies that are newly modernising.
The views in the Review article that were contrary to Goh’s essentially rehashed the ones advanced by Huntington in ‘Political Order’: in societies that have just begun to modernise, corruption in moderate doses can overcome unresponsive bureaucracy and be an instrument for progress.
Huntington pointed to 18th century England, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, as a time when there were high levels of corruption, as was the case in 19th century America when the forces spurring economic growth – utilities, railway companies and new corporations – were the same ones that were handing out bribes to city councils to lubricate paths to huge profits and expansion.
Huntington held that corruption at this stage of development was useful in providing new groups with the means to be assimilated into the system.
Corruption, Huntington noted, was a less extreme form of alienation than violence: “He who corrupts a system’s police officers was more likely to identify with the system than he who storms the system’s police stations.”
The high-minded would find it easy to disparage arguments that held corruption to be a tolerable and passing phase in the process of economic modernisation of underdeveloped societies.
But, said Huntington, the seamy tradeoffs for spurring growth and stability are necessary in conditions where people’s loyalties are focused on groups and tribes rather than on institutions and processes.
Loyalty and faith in institutions and their processes are a mark of societies that have arrived at some level of maturation in its constitutional forms.
This recall of a near three-decade old shakedown of arguments about corruption – its causes and what attitude to take towards it – is useful not just for proof of the validity of Goh’s counsel of zero tolerance, but also of the pitfalls when, as in Malaysia’s case, we opted for some tolerance of it that was not guarded enough.
The slack we allowed corruption has eventuated in an broad infection of the body politic by a bacillus that now sees low-cost houses built for the poor being appropriated by the well-heeled, to the phenomenon of gigantic commissions paid out of arms procurement contracts to local brokers.
In other words, no sphere is too low an opportunity to be exploited by some and no upper limit is recognised by others.
Once the hand is inserted in the cookie jar, there’s no telling when a halt can be called to the temptation towards serial behaviour.
Dr Goh Keng Swee served as Singapore’s deputy prime minister between 1973 and 1984. He passed away on May 14, 2010 at the age of 91.
TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for close on four decades. He likes the occupation because it puts him in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them.
Who is Samuel Huntington?
Dr Phua gave me this (below) for the benefit of all of us:
The meaning of Huntington
28th February 2009 — Issue 155
Samuel Huntington died a pariah among America’s intellectual elite. It’s because he was normal
Samuel Huntington…. He is assured a place in the pantheon of modern “big idea” thinkers, alongside his student Francis Fukuyama. But few in this group were as controversial, or as consistently unpopular among their peers. Huntington was accused of everything from militarism to nativism.
Noam Chomsky attacked him in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the bombing of Vietnam, and later described the Clash of Civilizations (1996)—Huntington’s most famous book—as a tool for the American elite to “control people.” He was denied membership of America’s prestigious National Academy of Sciences twice.
Why did he raise such hackles? Certainly, he was politically difficult to pin down. A lifelong Democrat, who worked for the ultra-liberal presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and voted for John Kerry in 2004, he was also a consistent conservative who backed the Vietnam war. His brief military career left an indelible mark, nowhere more evident than in his first book, The Soldier and the State (1957), which extols the ethos of the elite West Point military academy. At West Point, he wrote, “collective will supplants individual whim”—a latter-day Sparta in the midst of a civilian Babylon. With this book, his destiny to rile liberal colleagues was well underway; one reviewer portrayed him as a third-rate Mussolini.
Both Wasp and Episcopalian, he spent nearly half a century at Harvard and is descended from several generations of Harvard men. But his nationalism was political, not ethnic, valuing institutions like the military and the constitution rather than a timeless landscape or heroic ancestors. In The Promise of Disharmony (1981), he writes of American identity as an idea. America lacked class conflict, so had no need for the mystical folk nationalism of Europe. Wasps and immigrants alike, he argued, were eager to throw off their past and forge a liberal nation. Not a word did he write romanticising puritans or pioneers.
Huntington was instinctively a conservative because he valued an ordered society, but he also championed conservatism as a necessary instrument to defend liberal institutions against communism. In many of his books he attacked idealistic liberals for holding such institutions to impossible, utopian standards that undermined their effectiveness in the world.
Right up to the fall of communism, Huntington’s thinking bore the impress of cold war neoconservatism. He believed that non-western culture presented few obstacles to the spread of democracy. But the collapse of communism shook this view, generating in him a new appreciation for the power of culture. Four years after the fall of the Berlin wall he penned his signature article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” later turned into the book of the same name, arguing that cultural conflict would define the post-cold war era.
Huntington had a cyclical view of history, and feared a decline of America and the west through hubris and decay. In The Clash of Civilizations he argued trenchantly for a revival of collective spirit, and a rejection of both multiculturalism at home and neoconservative universalism abroad. Better, he came to think, to keep America strong by respecting differences overseas while striving to renew western civilisation at home.
It was not until 9/11 that Huntington became a household name; his “clash of civilisations” catchphrase adopted by everyone from southern Sudanese rebels to Silvio Berlusconi. It also ignited controversy. From the left, Edward Said claimed that a “clash of ignorance” was painting Islam as a monolith. From the right, neoconservatives were dismayed at Huntington’s rejection of their universalist incursions into Muslim lands. (His opposition to the second Iraq war, inconvenient and largely ignored by liberal critics, is quite consistent with his scepticism of the universalisms of both left and right.)
In his final polemic, Who Are We? (2004), Huntington raised the stakes by urging a renewal of American cultural nationalism. Hispanics had overtaken African-Americans as the largest minority, and as a result multiculturalism was challenging the nation’s anglo-protestant cultural centre. In response, Huntington rethought his exceptionalist, creedal nationalism to include a cultural component.
In taking this step, he resembled his fellow Wasp New Yorker, the late historian John Higham, who worried that the volume and geographic concentration of Hispanics differed from the dispersed, polyglot influxes of the past. Huntington’s fears of Latino secession are surely misplaced, but his concern for America’s cultural centre and his disdain for its cosmopolitan absentee elite resonated with many Americans. The nation’s intellectual elites were less amused, describing his book as racist and ensuring him virtual pariah status at Harvard and beyond.
This should not stop us recognising his achievements. He provides a much needed cultural corrective to both “realist” international relations theories, and Francis Fukuyama’s liberal internationalist The End of History. Ultimately, however, Huntington’s civilisational argument fails as a clear explanation of state behaviour, mostly because people cannot imagine their civilisation as they can their nation.
People distinguish themselves from next door nations but not distant cultural blocs. Shared civilisational identity can count when alliances between countries are formed, but it is far from decisive. Islam and western Christendom might seem to be partial exceptions to this rule, but even the umma and EU remain too abstract for most.
An iconoclast to the core, Huntington never threw his lot in with left or right. He was too statist to be a libertarian, too realist to embrace neoconservatism, and too sympathetic to nationalism, religion and the military to identify with liberal Democrats. As a conservative Democrat, then, he is an intellectual rarity. But his estrangement from the American elite merely confirms him as normal: the median postwar American voter has always identified as a conservative Democrat.
A tiny band of liberal nationalist centrists—figures like Michael Lind or the recently deceased Arthur Schlesinger Jr—are his true kindred spirits. In arguing for a less overbearing America that should just be itself, they, more than his illustrious students, define Huntington’s legacy.