All You Need to Know About Corruption in Singapore

Last updated on March 11, 2024

men passing envelope under table

In 2023, Singapore rose to the 5th position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and is the only Asian country to have made it into the top 10 of the index to be among the least corrupt countries in the world.

This impressive feat is attributed to the robust anti-corruption laws in the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA). This article will focus on the history of the PCA and how it has been applied in Singapore.

History and Purpose of Anti-Corruption Laws

The PCA’s predecessor legislation was known as the Prevention of Corruption Ordinance (POCO). The POCO was enacted in December 1937 during the colonial period of Singapore. Although the POCO covered corruption in both public and private businesses, the offences covered under POCO were non-seizable offences and the powers of investigation by the Anti-Corruption Branch were largely curtailed resulting in corruption being rife and rampant.

After World War II, the POCO was revised to make the offences seizable and powers of investigation of the Anti-Corruption Branch widened. However, corruption remained endemic as the Anti-Corruption Branch was understaffed. The inadequacy of the Anti-Corruption Branch eventually led the colonial government to abolish it entirely and the Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau (CPIB) was formed out of the Special Investigations Team to review the inadequacies of the Anti-Corruption Branch.

After Singapore attained self-government, the POCO was repealed and the PCA was enacted in its place on 17 June 1960. The PCA addressed the deficiencies of the POCO and empowered the CPIB to conduct investigations and enforcement duties.

The PCA’s purpose was well articulated during the second reading of the Prevention of Corruption Bill when the then Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Ong Pang Boon stated that:

“[t]he Bill, while directed mainly at corruption in the public services, is applicable also to corruption by private agents, trustees and others in a fiduciary capacity. To those who corrupt and those who are corrupt, the warning is clear – take heed and mend their ways. Just retribution will follow those who persist in corrupt practices.”

Application of the Prevention of Corruption Act

The main offences are listed out in sections 5 and 6 of the PCA. Section 5 of the PCA covers those who corruptly receive and corruptly give gratification as an inducement or reward for a person performing or withholding performance of a transaction while section 6 of the PCA covers the actions of agents, i.e. employees, those who act on behalf of others and public servants.

The term “gratification” is also defined broadly and includes monetary rewards, employment, discharge of any loan, service, favour or advantage. To stamp out corruption in the Public Service, the PCA also includes a presumption of corruption under section 8 of the PCA where the gratification is deemed to have been paid or given corruptly as an inducement or reward unless the contrary is proved.

Goh Ngak Eng v Public Prosecutor [2022] SGHC 254

In Goh Ngak Eng v Public Prosecutor [2022] SGHC 254 (“Goh Ngak Eng”), the accused was a director of Megamarine Services Pte Ltd. He was approached by Raj who indicated that he knew Lim, the yard manager of Keppel FELS (KFELS). The three then conspired to refer various vendors to KFELS. In exchange, they would ask these vendors to mark-up their invoices to KFELS, and subsequently obtain a cut of the marked-up invoice. These mark-ups totalled S$879,853.63, of which the accused received S$191,115.89.

The accused faced 15 charges of abetment by engaging in a conspiracy with Raj and Lim to corruptly obtain gratification under section 6(a) of the PCA, and 4 charges of corruptly giving gratification under section 6(b) of the PCA. The District Judge imposed a sentence of 17 months and 3 weeks’ imprisonment. However, the accused appealed against the District Judge’s decision stating that the sentence imposed was manifestly excessive.

Contrarily, on appeal, the High Court found that the accused’s initial sentence was “manifestly inadequate” and enhanced the aggregate sentence to 37 months and 3 weeks’ imprisonment.

In its decision, the High Court set out a new sentencing framework (Goh Ngak Eng framework) for private sector corruption offences prosecuted under sections 6(a) and (b) of the PCA, modelled after the two-stage, five-step framework in Logachev Vladislav v Public Prosecutor [2018] 4 SLR 609.

The Goh Ngak Eng framework is as follows:

Stage 1

Step 1: Identifying offence-specific factors

At step one, the court identifies, by reference to offence-specific factors:

  • The level of harm caused by the offence (categorised as “slight”, “moderate” or “severe”); and
  • The level of the offender’s culpability (categorised as “low”, “medium” or “high”).
Offence-specific factors
Factors going towards harm Factors going towards culpability
  • Actual loss caused to principal
  • Benefit to the giver of gratification
  • Type and extent of loss to third parties
  • Public disquiet
  • Offences committed as part of a group or syndicate
  • Involvement of a transnational element
  • Whether the public service rationale is engaged
  • Presence of public health or safety risks
  • Involvement of a strategic industry
  • Bribery of a foreign public official
  • Amount of gratification given or received
  • Degree of planning and premeditation
  • Level of sophistication
  • Duration of offending
  • Extent of the offender’s abuse of position and breach of trust
  • Offender’s motive in committing the offence
  • Presence of threats, pressure or coercion
  • The role played by the offender in the corrupt transaction

Step 2: Identifying the applicable indicative sentencing range

At step two, the court identifies the applicable indicative sentencing range by reference to the level of harm caused and the level of the offender’s culpability.

Harm/culpability Slight Moderate Severe
Low Fine or up to 6 months’ imprisonment 6 to 12 months’ imprisonment 1 to 2 years’ imprisonment
Medium 6 to 12 months’ imprisonment 1 to 2 years’ imprisonment 2 to 3 years’ imprisonment
High 1 to 2 years’ imprisonment 2 to 3 years’ imprisonment 3 to 5 years’ imprisonment

Step 3: Identifying the appropriate starting point within the indicative sentencing range

At step three, the court identifies the appropriate starting point within the indicative sentencing range. In doing so, the court would consider offence-specific factors and the harm and culpability levels associated with the offending conduct.

Although this step will engage the same offence-specific factors as those considered at the first step, the court has clarified that there will not be any double-counting of any factors. Rather, it is an exercise of granulating the case to arrive at a sense of what the starting point in that case should be, for sentencing purposes.

Stage 2

Step 4: Making adjustments to take into account particular circumstances

At step four, the court makes adjustments to the identified starting point, taking into account offender-specific factors including:

  • Aggravating factors (e.g., offences taken into consideration for sentencing purposes, relevant antecedents, lack of remorse, etc.); and
  • Mitigating factors (e.g., a guilty plea, voluntary restitution in the case of property-related offences, cooperation with the authorities, etc.).

The court may find at this stage that an adjustment of the sentence beyond the indicative sentencing range (identified pursuant to step 2) may be necessary.

Step 5: Taking into account the totality principle

In a case where an offender has been convicted of multiple charges, step five requires the court to consider if further adjustments should be made to the sentence for the individual charges to take into account the totality principle.

The totality principle ensures that the court arrives at a final sentence that is sufficient and proportionate to the offender’s overall criminality.

Extra-Territorial Reach of the Prevention of Corruption Act

The PCA itself has extra-territorial effect and Singapore citizens committing corruption or bribery overseas may be charged under the PCA.

The case of PP v Taw Cheng Kong is a case on point. Mr Taw, was based in Hong Kong as the Asia Pacific regional manager of the Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd (GIC) and was charged under section 37(1) of the PCA for accepting “incentive fees” from Kevin Lee of Rockerfeller & Co Inc New York to cause GIC to perform certain transactions at Lee’s instigation.

This extra-territorial effect of the PCA provides further deterrence for Singaporeans who intend to give or receive corruptly.

Punishments for Corruption

Under the PCA, the punishment for corruption is a fine of up to $100,000 or to a jail term of up to 5 years or to both. Where the bribery target is a member of parliament, the punishment for corruption is a fine of up to $100,000 or to a jail term of up to 7 years or to both.

Furthermore, if the gratification involves a sum of money or if a value can be attached to the gratification, the court may order the offender to pay a sum equal to the amount of gratification received as a fine. Hence, it is possible for the fine to exceed $100,000 as in the 2017 case involving a Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore marketing and sales executive who was ordered to pay a fine of $1.13 million for corruption.

As local SMEs expands regionally and globally for their businesses, it is also important to be cognisant of the extra-territorial effect of the anti-corruption laws in Singapore. Singaporeans who offer bribes or receives bribes overseas will be liable for punishment.

SMEs can seek the help of lawyers to advise them on appropriate internal HR practices and business ethics guidelines to ensure that they do not run afoul of Singapore’s corruption laws.

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