We all know this story: A law-abiding Singaporean citizen, the kind who takes the trouble to make a police report if he sees an illegal U-turn on Singapore streets (seriously, they exist), will turn into a speed maniac when they drive over the Causeway and across the Straits of Johor into Malaysia.

It’s like the air in Malaysia is different or something. It was reported in November last year that Malaysian police had issued 50,616 summonses to Singaporean drivers since 2014, out of which 37,506 had yet to be settled (tinyurl.com/str2-speed). If you assume the minimum payment is RM300 per summons, that’s more than RM11mil worth of fines right there.

The top offence is speeding, which is a simple thing to overlook, but these are Singaporeans! Is it the lure of the open Malaysian highways that tempt them to press down on the accelerator? Or – and this seems to be the favourite pet theory – is it because Singaporeans secretly want to rebel and break the law but are unable to freely do so back home?

However, it gets more serious than that. There have been accusations of bribe offering (and accepting) made by Malaysian police against Singaporean drivers (or is it the other way round?), most recently in the middle of last year when the transaction was caught on video and went viral on social media (tinyurl.com/star2-bribe).

In fact, there is something about the Singaporean environment that handily discourages bribery (Singapore ranked sixth out of 180 in last year’s Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index). Yet, the city state may not be immune to the practice beyond its borders.

In February this year, several Singaporeans were arrested in connection with a corruption scandal involving Keppel Offshore & Marine (Keppel O&M), which is a Singaporean GLC (government-linked corporation).

From 2001 to 2014, Keppel O&M paid US$55mil (RM225mil) in bribes to secure contracts with Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. This money was paid by Keppel O&M to “consultants” who – presumably after taking their cut – then paid Petrobras and Brazilian government officials (tinyurl.com/star2-keppel).

Keppel Corp’s response when the accusations first arose was to point to their code of conduct which “prohibits, among others, bribery and corruption”. They also said that their contract with the “consultant” prohibited “any improper payment of money”. So because that’s all in black and white, then everything’s OK then.

In fact, the reality was much more interesting. If you’ve ever wanted to know how people launder hundreds of millions of dollars, it seems all you need is one petrol station with an attached money exchange business and an owner that’s in on it. Police in Brazil became suspicious of the amount of money flowing through this one station, and it eventually led to a scandal involving R$6.2bil (RM6.5bil) worth of bribes.

But why does this happen? Even though people (including Singaporeans) clearly know it’s wrong to bribe, what pushes them over the line?

A paper presented at the 2016 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Integrity Forum offers clues. Titled “The Social Psychology of Corruption”, it delves into subconscious reasons why people succumb to corruption, and how the social environment can encourage it.

For example, the gap between what people know is morally right and how they behave in reality grows when people are in high-pressure situations that have a lot of ambiguity. The paper gives many case studies and is an interesting read in itself (tinyurl.com/star2-report).

But one I will highlight is something called “social proof”. People new to a situation will take social cues from people around them. In particular, people will not speak up or intervene in a stressful situation if they see that nobody else around them is. Or, more succinctly, seeing people break laws encourages you to ignore such transgressions – or worse, encourages you to do the same.

This makes some sense. Imagine you’re a Singaporean driver comfortably driving down Malaysia’s PLUS highway at 109km/h (just below the 110km/h limit to be safe). And then this Kancil zooms past you in a flash, followed by an express bus that seems to be going even faster. Is it surprising that you would feel you’re going too slow?

And doing business in Brazil without the aid of “consultants” is also considered unusual. The people involved probably persuaded themselves that it was just the cost of doing business there.

This is the issue with endemic corruption. People accept what’s “normal” even when they know it’s wrong. You see it all over the place here.

For example, I asked somebody who was going to open a shop whether they had to manage requests for duit kopi from authorities. She said she just hires a contractor who asks for a little bit extra on top, and he handles all these matters behind her back.

I should have told her she does her work just like a Singaporean GLC.

I know that the way things are going, it looks like Malaysia’s new government, Pakatan Harapan, won’t fulfil everything in their manifesto (tinyurl.com/star2-ph). But what’s interesting is that, although a lot of what they campaigned on was against corruption, the manifesto doesn’t go much beyond “strengthening institutions” and “reforming the MACC” (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission).

Combating corruption requires holistic solutions. So, sure, maybe Singaporeans would be less likely to speed in Malaysia if we could force them to pay their fines. But maybe – maybe – all we need to really do is to be better drivers ourselves.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.