Corruption: the break down of informal institutions

By Laura Ombelet

Singapore consistently ranks as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. While the word ‘corruption’ is virtually antonymous with ‘good government’, tackling corruption continues to remain notoriously difficult even for strong modern states. 

By definition, corruption is an informal institution. Under Helmke and Levitsky’s framework, corruption is a competing informal institution that directly violates the formal rules that exist within government. Informal institutions are often considered highly resilient to change, and this could be why corruption proves to be so difficult to eradicate. However, as countries like Singapore demonstrate, corruption networks can be weakened. So, how is this possible?

Singapore is one of the most well known examples of corruption eradication and today considers itself one of the ‘cleanest and corruption free countries in the world’. If we view the eradication of corruption as informal institutional change, then according to Helmke and Levitsky, this could be the result of changes in formal institutional strength or effectiveness. Before 1959, Singapore was controlled by the British and The Prevention of Corruption Ordinance was not strictly enforced due to weak laws, an uneducated public and underpaid public officers. Consequently corruption was rife. When the new government took over, administrative measures and preventative guidelines were established to reduce corruption. Court punishment for corruption was strengthened and so the costs associated with corruption increased. Therefore committing corruption became a far less viable option than before and with time, levels of corruption decreased. As stated by Helmke and Levitsky, ‘these costs will induce actors to abandon the informal institution’, which is exactly what happened in Singapore.  

If we focus on Singapore, eradicating corruption appears to be rather straightforward. However, Singapore has the added advantage of being a small state; less hindrance to communication makes implementing policy change far easier. Therefore, although we can conclude that the emergence of strong formal institutions aids the eradication of corruption, it is not always the only reason.