A force to be reckoned with

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 12:00am

In post-war Hong Kong, corruption was a way of life. People expected to pay lai see to be registered for housing. It was a matter of course to slip a $10 note to a civil servant to speed up processing for an identity card, car registration or a place in a government school.

Minibuses and trucks carried specially printed coloured notices that changed weekly; these indicated the payoffs had been made to police and it was safe to park illegally without fear of getting a ticket.

The situation was just as bad in the private sector, where one hand greased another over many routine commercial transactions. This consensual system of graft started to come to an end in 1974 with the foundation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

It was no easy task to change the mindset of a community long accustomed to taking and giving bribes, but three decades of relentless operations have changed the way Hong Kong thinks.

The ICAC deputy commissioner and head of the 908-strong Operations Department, Daniel Li Ming-chak, is confident Hong Kong can be kept free of organised graft.

'We've got to sustain the momentum, educate the public and continue to fight against corruption,' he says. 'It's more important that we've changed the culture of society than to make a few more convictions.

'The greatest challenge has been eliminating corruption in the civil service. People are well paid. I don't think there is syndicated corruption. Maybe there's a few who have overinvested or overspent who take the risk. But overall, the public sector is clean.'

In business, it's different. Mr Li believes there are still some people prepared to cut corners.

More than 11,300 court appearances by people charged by the commission have driven home the message that taking bribes or offering them simply does not pay. More than 8,000 offenders have been convicted, some of them sent to jail for long periods.

The stiffest sentence was handed down to Johnny Cheung Wai-ming, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for conspiracy over his role in an international plot. This involved the murder of a man whose body was found in Singapore harbour. Mr Li points out that people from all sections of the community offend the sweeping provisions of anti-graft laws. Earlier this year, a 56-year-old former solicitor appeared in the District Court on a conspiracy charge over a rural small-house development.

ICAC officers point with pride to what they consider their major achievement; the public no longer tolerates corruption, they say.

This basic change in attitude has come about because of a carrot-and-stick approach.

While graft-busters have pursued the corrupt using powers under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance, other arms of the ICAC have strived to educate the community.

The lesson that corruption does not pay and is an unnecessary social evil has been driven home in advertisements on television.

It has been repeated in classroom lectures and talks to business groups. Corruption prevention studies have been carried out in almost 3,000 business and government offices showing how proper procedures can eliminate the possibility of institutional graft.

This free advisory service has made 3,736 reports to private companies about how they can run their business better and prevent staff from slipping into dishonest habits. The carrot may have helped educate people and make them understand that corruption was both wrong and avoidable, but it was the stick approach to fighting graft that drove the message so forcefully home.

When Hong Kong governor Lord MacLehose determined to establish a special body to fight graft, he turned to an old and trusted ally to run it.

A 1973 commission of inquiry into corruption had turned up evidence of a system so rotten that the governor was appalled. He was no stranger to Hong Kong. As a professional diplomat, Chinese speaker and scholar he had been political adviser to the previous governor, Sir David Trench, but what was revealed stunned him. Who could he trust to clean out the stables? Who was above all suspicion?

He called in Jack Cater. This choice posed some problems. Cater had been a civil servant since 1945. But he had recently quit to head the telephone company at a salary far higher than any public servant could command.

Lord MacLehose pleaded for him to put the public good above personal gain. Cater agreed, but laid down some tough conditions. He knew that to combat a system so entrenched and accepted he would need enormous powers. These included laws that allowed him to stand on its head the ancient right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Only if he was given such powers, only if he was guaranteed total freedom to follow graft money wherever it may lead and only if he could hire and fire whoever he wanted would Cater accept the challenge. The governor agreed. So when the ICAC was born, it had authority and powers seldom given anyone in a British jurisdiction except in a time of war. In future, there would be presumption of guilt. The ICAC could demand that civil servants prove the source of their wealth and explain how they enjoyed an unduly high standard of living. If they failed to satisfactorily do so, they faced up to seven years in jail.

Some legal experts were appalled at what they perceived as a threat to personal liberties. But the public, aroused for once from apathy about public affairs by rage over the graft disclosures, backed the moves with enthusiasm.

Once formed, the ICAC got to work with a will. The most obvious target was the police. Such was the blatant scale of corruption that many policemen felt they could operate with impunity. At Western Police Station, for instance, there was a desk set up near the report room where underground informants would daily line up to tell a renowned police sergeant of anything out of the ordinary. If a smalltime gambler, for instance, was in an illegal card game the night before flashing big wads of money, the sergeant would know first thing in the morning. If there had been a robbery in the previous few days, then police knew the prime suspect. The money paid out to informants was a small piece of the action.

Police corruption flowed from gambling, prostitution, narcotics, transport rackets and licensing. There was a tariff for every illegal activity and criminals willingly paid it to be allowed to operate. This did not apply to crimes of violence; nobody could buy their way out of murder, rape or armed robbery.

ICAC investigators, either newly recruited from British police forces or seconded from the Hong Kong force's Anti-Corruption Branch, swooped. Scores, then hundreds, of police were arrested. They were not mere constables either, but some high-ranking and highly respected officers up to assistant commissioner level. The force was virtually decimated as officers were jailed, sacked or put on leave while they were investigated. Many simply said goodbye to their careers, packed their bags and 'did a Godber'.

By 1977, the pressure on police was enormous. For many years they had been held in high respect, at least by polite European society. After 1967, they were hailed as the heroes of Hong Kong for standing so solidly and loyally against the left-wing terrorists. In 1969 they had been accorded the ultimate accolade; they were allowed to use the word Royal in their title. But by the summer of 1977, this proud reputation was in tatters, many policemen disgraced.

There was a growing resentment in the force, a feeling that enough was enough, that a limit had been reached. Many policemen who had served with distinction felt it was time to put the past behind them. In 1977, their patience snapped. Policemen by the thousands joined in demonstrations demanding that the ICAC 'persecution' come to an end and that a line be drawn.

Thousands of police, Chinese and expatriates, constables and inspectors, joined forces to stage formidable rallies. Hong Kong quivered. The territory shuddered at the prospect of lawlessness.

In emergency session, the governor hastily announced an amnesty for most corruption offences committed in the past. But there would be merciless action against future corruption. That political decision was criticised by many, but it laid a foundation for co-operation between the ICAC and police that has endured ever since. There is no syndicated corruption today in the Hong Kong Police, and Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai swears it will never emerge again.