FIFA and Hong Kong exchange scandal of 1987 have eerie echoes
Does the fast unraveling scandal at FIFA have anything to tell us about the way that large organisations, including businesses, are run? The three word answer to this question is: ‘are you kidding’ because what’s happening at FIFA has occurred elsewhere to various degrees but selective hearing sets in when trying to learn anything from these experiences.
At the heart of the FIFA scandal is a self-perpetuating body purporting to be democratically elected but is in reality a clique-ridden cabal with little or no accountability.
Reading about FIFA and the backhanders that were allegedly paid to secure hosting for events, not forgetting other payoffs and the self righteous manner in which the FIFA officials have defended themselves stirred powerful memories of a unerringly parallel scandal that burst into the public domain here in the late 1980s.
I am, of course, referring to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange scandal that first emerged in 1987 but became a much bigger story the following year with the arrests of the exchange’s leading members and revelations of how bribery helped secure listings for companies vying to join this fast growing body.
At the heart of the scandal stood the exchange chairman Ronald Li Fook-shui, a mercurial figure who gained much of the credit for forging a united exchange in 1986 and presiding over its growth. After very lengthy court hearings he was finally jailed in 1990 on corruption charges however some of his accomplices who held senior roles in the exchange escaped scott free and continue to be prominent in public life.
There are compelling similarities between the late Ronald Li and FIFA’s recently resigned president Sepp Blatter. Both men presided over considerable growth in their organisations and produced a far larger gravy train for the inner circle to clamber aboard. In theory, both bodies represented their members but in reality the elections were a foregone result and accountability was deemed to be an unnecessary encumbrance.
And then there’s the bluster and self justification that came from these men after the problems were revealed. I vividly recall being at the famous press conference when Li ordered an Australian journalist out of the room for pressing him on matters he declined to address. But the cat was out of the bag and it became clear the exchange had become a distinctly murky place.
In response to the furore, Li’s acolytes were buzzing around reminding us how much he had done for the stock market and pointing out that hitherto no one had been complaining. That same script seems to be in the hands of Blatter’s apologists.
In the wake of the Hong Kong scandal, there were many changes at the stock exchange and external regulation, previously imposed with the lightest of touches, got a lot tougher.
It would be inaccurate to say that nothing was learned but the legacy of the debacle is mixed. On the one hand it produced a myriad of petty and useless rules that continue to irritate stock market professionals, while on the other the level of accountability in the Hong Kong market remains below that of other places. The market’s heady expansion, largely based on companies from the mainland, has since introduced political complications that remain unresolved.
Both the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and FIFA are, in effect, private members clubs serving a much wider public. Here lies the problem because, like public companies that insist on only being accountable to their shareholders, the impact of their activities stretches well beyond the membership. This gives rise to legitimate public interest in both how they are governed and the impact of their activities.
In Hong Kong there is an instinctive tendency to keep control within small, often incestuous groups, prompting the notion that more transparent forms of governance get in the way of business and are time wasting. However in the corporate world many of the most successful companies operate in tightly regulated environments.
Among things this means a requirement to periodically refresh director’s boards and it requires levels of disclosure that send shivers down the back of local tycoons. They succeed not in spite of these requirements but because of them. Having to operate in the spotlight of transparency and accountability can be awkward but it pays dividends.
Meanwhile it is perhaps not unfair to point out, in the spirit of how things are done in Hong Kong, that our local FIFA representatives remain unrepentant over voting for Blatter at a time when revelations about the scandal were rapidly gaining pace. Moreover evidence has been presented that Hong Kong played a significant role in laundering money for FIFA directors who are now under investigation in several jurisdictions. Therefore never let it be said that the plucky little SAR has not played its part.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster