Singapore Inc: where you conform or leave

Nick Leeson finally goes on trial today. It is not only his future that's at stake, but also Singapore's very reputation as a country with which the world likes to do business, writes Stephen Vines

When Nick Leeson, the rogue futures trader, enters Singapore's Subordinate Court Number 24 this morning he will find himself in fairly familiar surroundings. There is a distinctly British feel about the courts. Indeed, much of the Singaporean legal system is superficially British.

The lawyers bustle about in wigs and black gowns, which look a lot neater and cleaner than the musty garb of the Old Bailey. The language of the courts is English, the forms of address are British and many of the laws are drawn from the British statute books.

Yet the similarities only serve to underline the differences. Trial by jury was steadily eroded from 1960 and finally abolished in 1969. A Singaporean court reporter recently explained the reason. "We've got some clever chaps here," he said. "It was all too easy for them to sway a jury."

Habeas corpus, the concept of preventing detention without just cause, has been considerably eroded in Singapore, although the constitution makes clear that unlawful detention is not allowed. Yet Singapore's most famous political prisoner, Chia Thye Poh, was detained for 22 years without ever being charged or tried. He was released in 1989 and confined to the tiny island of Sentosa, where he remains.

Neither is Singapore reticent in using the draconian powers of the Internal Security Act, inherited from the British, as a means of combating alleged subversion. In 1987 a group of so-called Marxist plotters were rounded up and thrown in jail allegedly for attempting to overthrow the government. What linked the 22 people arrested was the social work they were doing on behalf of foreign domestic workers.

Despite these chilling exercises of legal power, Singapore does not have a reputation as a society of arbitrary justice. On the contrary, foreign investors flock to this tiny island state because they admire its stability and rule of law. Singapore's government has gone out of its way to present a squeaky-clean image. This image is self-consciously on display during elections when the leaders of the ruling People's Action Party clad themselves in simple white shirts and trousers.

The policies of the government are tough and the laws of the land are tough because that's the way Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's grand old man, likes it. Even though he is now supposedly taking a back seat as the "Senior Minister", Mr Lee's fears and hopes remain the guiding force of the nation.

Under Mr Lee's leadership Singapore has become one of the most economically successful countries in the world. Its unique blend of capitalism and state control has produced a garden-city environment and a standard of living unimaginable two decades ago.

Lee Kuan Yew fears that all these material gains will disappear if the controls are eased. "We got one little island - 600 square kilometres," he told the 1981 National Day rally in a typical tour de force speech. "You unwind this, you will not drop on soft paddy fields, it is hard, hard concrete, your bones are broken and it's kaput."

To prevent everyone going kaput, stern punishment is meted out to those who break the law. The thud of the executioner's trap door can be heard almost every Friday at Changai Jail where those convicted of murder, drug-running and some eight other crimes are hanged. Canings of vandals, rapists and other offenders, including housebreakers, are routine.

With no natural resources and very little land space, the government has sought to establish Singapore as an international financial and service centre. Multinational companies have flocked to Singapore, seeing it as an efficient, crime-free, orderly base from which to conduct business in some of the more unpredictable parts of the region where corruption is rife, law and order dubious, and the water never safe to drink. The government has managed to maintain this aura of confidence around the island by an emphasis on law and order and stability.

It was not surprising, then, that the authorities were almost apoplectic with rage when they discovered that the unlawful trading which triggered the collapse of Barings had taken place within Singapore's borders.

The trial of Nick Leeson has therefore become something more than a simple criminal matter. It is seen as an opportunity to show the world that Singapore has not lost its grip, that it is at least as good as anywhere else at handling such matters, that rules will be enforced, that malpractice will not be tolerated.

The trial marks the conclusion of an impressive mobilisation of resources to find out what happened: in this respect Singapore's inspectors appear to have dug deeper than those appointed by the Bank of England.

The Singaporeans are good at sorting things out. A cohesive government machine, working hand in hand with a compliant private sector, can produce the sort of results that more libertarian societies find hard to achieve.

Singapore also has the advantage of having a highly capable Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), a body not dissimilar to the commercial crimes bureaux attached to many police forces. However, in Singapore the CAD is part of the Ministry of Finance, which gives it immediate access to commercial knowledge and information not commonly available to police forces.

Neither are CAD officers simply a bunch of calculator-toting accountants. They have powers of arrest and, according to one suspect questioned in their offices, are quite capable of being rough and aggressive. Aggression is part of the Singapore Inc style, employed against those who do not obey the rules and, in even sharper form, to those who challenge the validity of the rules.

The instinctively authoritarian ruling party has little time for opposition. The law is the weapon of choice for silencing critics; they are rarely silenced by direct political persecution. The most persistent and outspoken critic of the government was the former leader of the Workers Party, JB Jeyaretnam. In 1981 he was the sole opposition member of parliament. His parliamentary career was dogged by legal action against him.

First he was charged with alleged irregularities in his party's accounts, for which he was fined a sum sufficient to ensure automatic disqualification from parliament. He was then disqualified from practising law. After years of trying to overturn this ruling he was vindicated by a Privy Council ruling in 1988. The following year Singapore ended the right of appeal to the Privy Council.

As for Mr Jeyaretnam, he was then hit with a slander suit brought by Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee won the case. Indeed he has won every case he has brought to court, including a record-breaking libel action, earlier this year, against the International Herald Tribune.

The Singaporean government reacts with anger and threats of legal action against anyone who dares question the independence of the judiciary. However, it is most unlikely that members of the judiciary come up against any kind of direct pressure from the government. There is no need. They know what is expected of them, as do most Singaporeans who have absorbed the many government campaigns to make them better citizens and, as one campaign put it, to "share common values".

Yet proportionately more Singaporeans leave their country for a new life overseas than Hong Kong people living with the prospect of Chinese rule in less than two years' time. This is seen as the only solution for those who perhaps do not share "common values", do not wish to conform and are not so fearful of landing on the hard concrete Mr Lee believes surrounds the world outside orderly Singapore.

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