Graft-busters go from hooking big fish to catching minnows

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


63-year-old merchant put false information on a membership form during ICAC undercover sting
SCMP headline, November 17

Acharacteristic of government is that it never takes down again what it has ever set up, no matter if the need is long gone. Once a committee, always a committee, in public service.

Take the Independent Commission Against Corruption, for example. It was set up in 1974 to stamp out bribery in the police force and did a marvellous job of this. Frightened senior cops scattered all over the world, looking over their shoulders in fear of retribution.

But did the civil servants responsible for this victory then rub their hands and say: 'Well, that's a job well done. Time to get on to other things?'

No, they did not. The ICAC is still with us, costing us HK$824 million this year and on an ever wider hunt for scalps to justify this budget.

Even its commissioner, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, had to admit recently that a series of misconduct in office prosecutions 'appeared to have no connection with bribery'.

Take its most recent scalp. A Jockey Club member was persuaded to fill in a form overstating his acquaintance with an undercover ICAC officer. The man received no advantage for it.

Big one, fellas! Haul out the champagne! We done bagged ourselves a real live crook. What a catch! There will be gold bauhinias in it for everyone this time round.

Did you know that the ICAC employs 113 people in its public relations department alone? Yes, I agree. With the way these people like to clap themselves on the back, even 113 flacks must be heavily overworked.

But why do we have to keep spending public money to sort out these continual Jockey Club membership scandals?

I mean, if it should happen at the Foreign Correspondents Club that certain people on the membership committee secretly push favoured applicants up the waiting list, we would hardly take it to the ICAC.

These are internal club matters. They have very little impact on the general public. Let's tell the Jockey Club to clean up its own dirt rather than bill the taxpayer for it.

There was another case recently of ICAC obsession with trivial pursuits in a prosecution of two Apple Computer employees charged with faking paperwork to buy smartphones that they could then sell at a premium.

This rates as a firing offence in my book and I'm sure Apple fired them if they did it. But why train the big guns of the ICAC on it?

Did we really set up a multi-hundred-million dollar a year agency to go sniffing up the trail of a couple of small-time salesmen who tried to make a little extra money from their employer's mispricing of its market?

That's what it was, really. Apple underpriced these toys relative to the scale of the present demand and thus effectively invited others to come in and intermediate the market. The company created its own problem. Let it solve on its own too. The purported horrible crime committed by these two people didn't hurt me. Did it hurt you?

But where the ICAC always shows up at its worst is in its relations with the police force.

It happens all too often that our graft-busters arrest a policeman, make a big noise about it, and then drop the case.

The result is that the police force is wonderfully tarred while the ICAC polishes its reputation for having kept the cops in line. It didn't lay any charges but, hey, where there's smoke there's fire, you know. He must have been guilty, stands to reason.

Of course, every now and then we have the biter bit and it is the police who arrest someone at the ICAC with uniformed cops on prominent show to drive the point home for the cameras. Occasionally the ICAC has also found itself having to arrest one of its own people.

Let us be grateful that the world at large does not take much interest in these silly games because they are silly indeed and we could make ourselves look prize fools in this town.

Here is the long and short of it. The ICAC, as it is behaving now with its minnow fishing in pools far distant from the one to which it was sent, is past its sell-by date and ought at a minimum to be scaled back to less than half its present size.