Power and Corruption

Historian Baron John Acton once declared that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ In our class discussions, we have been focusing primarily on the positive aspects of power and how it can be used as a tool to advance one’s career. However, it is also imperative to recognise its dark side and its ability to corrupt even the seemingly honest.

In the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 students were assigned roles as guards and prisoners, in which the prison situation was then simulated. However, despite it being just an experiment, many guards adapted their roles beyond expectation and subjected the prisoners to psychological torture. In the end, the experiment was called off prematurely in order to stabilise the mental trauma faced by some prisoners.

The outcome of the experiment is haunting but real. When power is placed with seemingly normal and honest people (students), they have the ability to conduct extreme behaviours that even they themselves might not expect. While the experiment clearly shows the ability of power to corrupt, this point was driven even more intensely to me after returning from a recent museum trip in Belgrade.

In 1974, performance artist Marina Abramović conducted her most famous act, Rhythm 0 in Serbia, Belgrade, where she placed 72 objects on the table that the public were allowed to use in any way on her while she laid motionless. It was a horrific process showing how the acts became increasingly perverse and violent as time passed.

The table with the 72 items

The audience using various items on Marina during the 6-hour performance

Marina later claimed, “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you. I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away.”

It is certainly disturbing to see how possessing merely some power over someone with no relations whatsoever for a few hours can drive such barbaric behaviours. It is no surprise to me then why so many leaders who have much more power and influence engage in corrupt acts. From the above examples, the question which then begets us is, how does power actually corrupt people?

I believe the answer can be clearly derived from a simple distinction between two forms of power established by psychologists David McClelland and David Winter. The first form is called socialized power, which is power used to benefit others, while the other form is called personalized power, which is using power for personal gain. Importantly, these two forms of power are not mutually exclusive. A leader can use his/her power to benefit others, but can also gain personally. The problem thus arises when personalized power dominates and the leader gains at his/her followers’ expense.

However, leaders and organizations can sometimes rationalize that they are working for the greater good, but actually engage in actions that is ethically wrong. A sense of power can cause a leader to engage in what famous leadership ethicist Terry Price coins, “exception making”, where a leader believes that the rules that govern what is right and wrong does not apply to himself. This is apparent during the Watergate scandal, where despite knowing the legal implications, President Nixon still engaged in various illegal acts such as wiretapping to spy on his opponents. President Nixon could possibly see himself as someone so powerful such that he is above the rule of law.

Leaders can also become intoxicated by power, whereby they engage in corrupt behaviour because they know they can get away with it. After the same performance as mentioned above by Marina, she claimed, “After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking towards the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.” This showed that her abusers had done what they did because they knew there would be no repercussions for their actions. When given the opportunity, even the honest may be tempted to engage in deviant acts if they knew no one will find out.

Similarly, we can see how this phenomenon has proliferated in the wider context of powerful organizations globally. In South Korea, there are numerous cases of influential executives from large conglomerates, or chaebols, who have received preferential treatment from government officials. For example, former President Lee Myung-Bak had pardoned Chey Tae-Won, chairman of SK from a four-year sentence for a massive accounting fraud and pardoned the chairman of Samsung, Lee Kun-Hee, for embezzlement. The main rationale was because they were deemed too important for the country’s economy. Unfortunately, this has nonetheless served to proliferate more white-collar crimes because they know they can get away with it.

Hence, as potential future leaders with power, I believe we will all at some point be exposed to the temptation of engaging in corrupt behaviour. It is hence important to be aware of these evil nudges and to use the power that we possess responsibly.








Serving the Needs of the Elderly

Following our in-class case discussion on Alexandra Hospital, I am surprised yet heartened by the lengths the hospital has taken to recognize and harness the value of their older employees. Besides introducing various health initiatives and changes to the workplace ergonomics, I am impressed by their nuanced understanding of the importance of assimilating them into the workplace through redesigning job roles and integration with the younger employees.

However, despite the romanticism this case invokes about promoting active aging in the workplace, the discussion inadvertently reminded me of a cartoon shown during a Singapore Studies class, ‘Changing Landscapes of Singapore’ I had taken 2 years ago.


Through the years, several policies have been implemented to encourage employment among the elderly. These include the “Advantage! Scheme” which provides companies with incentives to retain and retrain older employees as well as the “Retirement and Reemployment Act” which extended the mandatory retirement age to 62, with an option to extend another three years. These policies are commendable and aims to foster greater financial independence and mental engagement among the elderly.

However, the question begets if these policies do tackle the root causes of the problem.

Firstly, a survey conducted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development in 2009 indicates that 62% of the elderly above the age of 65 who are working need money to support their current living expenses. This means that these elderly are working not because they want to, but because of their basic need for survival. While draconian, I feel this reflects to some extent failure in the state to provide for this underprivileged group. Hence, while workplace initiatives do alleviate some of their woes, it perhaps does not solve their deeper, underlying financial concerns.

Secondly, despite the various schemes, ageism may still exist in the workplace. For example, under the “Retirement and Reemployment Act”, employers have the discretion to reduce wages of employees above 62 by up to 10%, probably due to perceptions that the elderly are generally physically and mentally less agile. A case in point would be the uproar faced when the Land Transport Authority decided to raise the age limit of taxi drivers to 75. In addition, younger employees are found to be less accommodating and most prone to undervalue older employees’ experience (Hawley, 2009). This makes me wonder if the situation in Alexandra Hospital is actually just a beautiful exception, not a rule.

Thirdly, ageism exists even in the recruitment stages before employment. In a study commissioned by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP), it is found that job seekers above 40 have a lower chance of job success if the interviewers are younger people and almost 80% of those above 55 cited age as their biggest obstacle. In my stint as an employment surveyor for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), I also came across numerous qualified professionals who remain unemployed for long duration due to their age.

In light of these key issues, I would like to propose some recommendations to tackle them, drawing inspiration from concepts learnt during our class discussions.


In Dan Pink’s video, ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’, it is shown that there is a mismatch between how businesses motivate employees and what research actually proves. In a similar vein, I believe there should be greater thought put into tailoring different remuneration packages for each elderly. Certain elderly choose to work to fill time while others do so for financial reasons. Hence, offering initiatives such as flexible-time options or greater protection of their benefits provides a greater fit to each elderly’s preference and hence, motivating them to perform better.


There is also a need to change the attitudes of the younger employees towards elderly and this can be done through developing a symbiotic relationship between government-entities and private sector. In collaboration, courses and talks can be held to change the mindsets among both employers and employees. Knowledge transfer programs can be introduced to empower older workers to act as mentors to guide their younger counterparts and greater focus can be placed in work environments to inculcate greater job integration among all ages.


Using the concepts of nudge theory, we can utilize various nudges to generate greater awareness for active aging in the workplace. This can be done through using channels such as media advertisements and posters to highlight various schemes and initiatives. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Youtube can be leveraged to highlight benefits of hiring elderly and generating greater accessibility to the issue of ageism. The video below is an advertisement done by the MOM.

In conclusion, I believe that to better promote active aging in the workplace, it is imperative for us to understand the real needs of the elderly and to provide for them more effectively. Doing so, we can then truly move a step closer towards becoming a more inclusive society.


Links and References:

Hawley, Casey. 2009. Managing the Older Employee: Communicate, Motivate, Innovate. Avon, Mass: Adam Business.

Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices. 2011. “Hiring the Sliver Generation.” Accessed Feb, 2015. http://www.tafep.sg/assets/files/Publications/TAFEP_Publication_251011_FA_path_lowres.pdf.