Foundations of a clean future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am

During his internship last summer with a construction company, then final-year civil engineering student Steve Lam Ho-yin was often puzzled by a job procedure.

The step involved entombing a small concrete cube in a locked box and transporting it under high security to a laboratory. The significance of the procedure within the construction industry was revealed to him recently in a programme conducted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

'It turned out that the procedure is one of the many key steps adopted by industry professionals to prevent corruption,' Mr Lam said.

'The concrete cube is a sample taken from underground before a construction project commences. It has to be taken to a laboratory for testing whether it's sturdy enough to sustain a structure.

'Corruption opportunities can arise during this process as unscrupulous people might tinker with the process for profit. They might fabricate reports or swap the sample so that they don't have to spend extra money to ensure the concrete passes muster.'

Mr Lam is one of 670 participants in an education programme organised by the graft busters to raise awareness of corrupt practices in the construction industry.

They are final-year students from five universities and all come from construction-related disciplines.

Kenny Fok Kwong-man, principal corruption prevention officer with the ICAC, said construction graduates had to be vigilant as their industry was susceptible to corrupt practices.

'Construction industry practitioners come into contact with a lot of parties like contractors and sub-contractors,' he said.

'Corruption issues can arise in a lot of processes like tendering and contract letting when there's lax supervision on the part of surveyors and engineers. It's likely that many of the graduates will join the industry and take up management positions soon. Knowing more about real-life cases of corruption committed by construction professionals can help them stay alert.'

Mr Fok, an experienced surveyor before he joined the ICAC, said the need to strengthen graduates' ethical education had become more acute since the government's recent pledge to boost the construction industry.

'The government has announced a number of major construction projects costing hundreds of billions of dollars,' he said. 'There will be a lot of job opportunities for construction graduates. If we only take action after corrupt acts are committed, it will be too late. Dealing with the aftermath of corruption can be an agony that incurs huge financial and social costs.'

Featuring a three-hour talk on anti-corruption law and real-life corruption cases in the construction industry, the programme is part of a credit-bearing course of the participating universities.

Beginning as a small initiative involving just the University of Hong Kong in 2007, the Corruption Prevention Programme for Construction-related Degree Courses was expanded this year to cover the five universities that offer construction-related courses.

ICAC officers who were former industry veterans were despatched to universities to conduct the talks.

'At the beginning, we only provided some course material for HKU to incorporate into one of its courses,' Mr Fok said.

'We took a much more aggressive approach this year and conducted the programme ourselves.'

He said there were a lot of grey areas involving construction practices and students had to stay vigilant.

'Many might not be black and white cases involving egregious misdeeds,' Mr Fok said. 'Those who have the intent to commit corruption will no longer give you a wad of banknotes.

'Such conspicuous corruption acts are rare nowadays. Many of the corrupt practices we come across involve luxurious entertainment.

'People might not know that accepting an expensive lunch invitation or hitting the casinos together with business parties might constitute legal transgressions.

'It's important to teach graduates to resist temptations and avoid luxurious entertainment.

'The programme also teaches them how to respond when possible corrupt situations arise. The knowledge they get from the course might not serve immediate purposes but it will stand them in good stead as they gradually rise through the ranks of the industry.'

Civil engineering professor Mohan Kumaraswamy from the University of Hong Kong said the programme gave students ideas about where to draw the line between acceptable and suspicious practices.

'Their lecture on ethics and professionalism is integral to our course,' he said.

'The real-life examples are particularly useful. Students know that they have to keep a certain distance from the many different types of people they come into contact with in the industry. They might give you favours and expect something in return.'

Mr Lam, who is now employed by the MTR Corporation, said the real-life scenarios left an indelible impression.

'The piling scandal involving the building of the Airport Express in Central in 2000 was shocking,' he said.

'While those who were found to have taken bribes or greased the palms of construction parties are clearly to blame for corrupt practices, such transgressions would not have appeared if not for the negligence and dereliction of duty on the part of surveyors and engineers involved in the project. That's why industry professionals have to remain alert and ensure proper checks and balances are in place.'