Mak Chai-Kwong, born in 1950, began his civil service career in Hong Kong in 1976. He held a series of high-ranking government engineering jobs. Mak was appointed by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying as the Secretary for Development in July 2012, but was soon forced to resign when allegation surfaced that he was involved in a housing subsidy fraud more than 20 years ago. He was formally charged with cheating on government rent allowances in October 2012.
Old ways in Hong Kong's civil service are unacceptable today
The conviction of two top officials in connection with a housing allowance scam has understandably sent shock waves across the Hong Kong civil service. The fraud dates back to 1985, with the pair applying for subsidy to rent each other's flat while covering up the fact for years that they were the owners. The scandal only came to light in a press report days after one of them was appointed development minister last summer. It remains unclear whether more cases will be unearthed, as cross-leasing was said to be a common practice to get around rent subsidy rules in those days. Fears are growing that more civil servants may face retribution for what they did decades ago. An amnesty for those who come clean has been urged.
The mixed reactions towards the court ruling suggests there is some sympathy for former development chief Mak Chai-kwong and assistant highways director Tsang King-man. Some even lamented that Mak, who was in the top job for only eight days, had paid a dear price for what he did some 30 years ago. The duo entered into a bogus cross-leasing deal whereby they actually owned the flats they said they were renting. The fraud could have been buried had he not taken up the high-profile role in the trouble-plagued administration led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Mak and Tsang offered to repay the allowance plus interest worth HK$1.8 million in total, pending sentencing in early August. Regret and sympathy aside, the fact remains that the law has been broken. The fallout also dealt a heavy blow to the new ruling team.
Mak could never expect his misdeed would be exposed at the height of his political career three decades later. If there is a lesson to learn, it is the need for public servants to adhere to the highest standard of conduct at all times. Expectations on senior officials changes with the times. The case is a good reminder that what used to be common practice may no longer be acceptable today. Even wrongdoings committed ages ago cannot evade justice.
Cross-leasing of properties among civil servants on rent subsidy is not illegal. The view is shared by the former civil service chief and the judge presiding the case. As long as no dishonesty or deception is involved, there is no need to worry. The plea for a one-off amnesty is unnecessary.
Rising expectations on conduct and integrity means officials have little choice but to open themselves to public scrutiny.