Poison pens

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 November, 2003, 12:00am

Anonymous letters, it seems, play a large role in Hong Kong. Whenever anyone suffers a grievance, real or imagined, the first thing he or she seems to do is to sit down and write an anonymous letter, accusing someone - a superior, a government department or a private company - of all kinds of imaginable evils. And, to make sure the letters have an impact, they are routinely copied to the press, to members of the Legislative Council, to the chief executive, and to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

And, it seems, many of these anonymous letter-writers are taken seriously. Some newspapers faithfully reproduce their claims, without first confirming them. Then, after the report has appeared in the papers, government officials and Legco members are asked to comment. Someone calls on the ICAC to investigate. Before long, there is a full-blown scandal, based on nothing more than the contents of anonymous letters. Meanwhile, the reputation of the individual, institution or company may suffer irreparable damage.

Some charges, of course, are so far-fetched that they are immediately dismissed. Others, however, sound credible on the surface, going into minute detail. It is only after time-consuming efforts that the anonymous accusers can be discredited. In the meantime, so much mud has been thrown that some is likely to stick.

In recent months, for example, there has been a flood of anonymous letters directed at Andrew Sheng, chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission. They accused Mr Sheng, among other things, of cronyism (that, and corruption, seem to be the two favourite charges of anonymous letter-writers) and of helping a senior executive on his staff to evade tax.

Because the charges were given credence by the media and other reputable organisations, the SFC had to launch an investigation. Since this could not be done by the institution itself, it had to seek the services of an outside party - PricewaterhouseCoopers - which, after a prolonged (and no doubt costly) investigation decided there was nothing to the anonymous allegations.

Mr Sheng has not only been the victim of anonymous charges, he has also been the recipient of anonymous letters accusing other people of nefarious dealings. An anonymous letter, supposedly signed by a group of Shun Tak shareholders, was sent to Paul Chow Man-yiu, the chief executive of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, and copies were sent to Mr Sheng in his role as chairman of the SFC, as well as to the media, the Commercial Crimes Bureau, the ICAC, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the chief executive.

Recently, there has been a spate of anonymous letters concerning mainland companies. Many are about companies making their first public offering. This is understandable, since many do not have the transparency of their Hong Kong counterparts. Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing has described anonymous complaints as a worrying trend.

Ordinarily, anonymous letters should not be taken seriously. Obviously, there are exceptions. There have been anonymous tips to the police that have resulted in arrests and convictions.

But generally speaking, the more open an organisation or society, the less room there is for spiteful, anonymous letter-writers.

The cure for the problem is to make institutions, the government and society as open as possible. One small step in that direction would be the opening up of all advisory committee meetings to the public. A little sunshine can go a long way towards resolving the problem of anonymous complaints. Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator frankching1@aol.com