Avoiding conflict-of-interest situations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 November, 2003, 12:00am

An age-old Chinese proverb says: Don't do up your shoe in a melon-patch and don't adjust your cap under a plum tree. This is to avoid causing suspicions that you may be trying to steal the melons or plums. What reminds me of this gem of Chinese wisdom is the row that has engulfed the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Michael Wong Kin-chow, over the past week.

Mr Wong was alleged to have received free air tickets from his daughter when he was still an Appeal Court judge. While there is usually nothing wrong with a father getting a free gift from his daughter, the tickets were said to have come from a wealthy businessman who was his daughter's friend.

If that was the case, then Mr Wong might have breached the rules by failing to seek permission to accept the tickets. Mr Wong and his daughter have since denied they had done anything improper and referred reports on the allegations against them to their lawyers.

But I hope young people would learn from the row by trying to get to grips with the concept of conflict of interests.

Imagine yourself being a judge in a singing competition and your brother is one of the contestants. Do you think other contestants would think that you have acted impartially in judging your brother if he won?

Suppose you are a government official in charge of monitoring the quality of construction at a building site. The site supervisor takes you to lunch every now and then, and pays the bill every time. Even if you have strictly abided by the quality standards, what would people think if things went wrong at the site?

People accused of accepting advantages and compromising their official duties sometimes protest that they have been unfairly targeted and that their conscience is clear. But they should realise that they have done themselves and their employers a disservice by failing to avoid conflict-of-interest situations, which may lead people to lose confidence in them or their employers.

That is why organisations around the world, particularly governments, have all adopted strict rules governing conflict of interests.

In Hong Kong, the rules are that under no circumstances should a civil servant:

a. use his official position to benefit himself, his family, relatives or friends or any person to whom he owes a favour or is obligated in any way;

b. put himself in a position that may reasonably arouse suspicion of dishonesty, or of using his official position to benefit himself or his family, relatives or friends.

Always remember that integrity is your most precious asset. You should protect it by avoiding situations that could give rise to suspicions that there is a conflict between your public duty and private interests.

* C K Lau is Executive Editor, News, of the South China Morning Post