Sad days for the graft-buster in many more ways than one

The consequences of ex-ICAC chief's alleged spending from public coffers are far-reaching

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:38am

I wonder whether the former ICAC commissioner Timothy Tong Hin-ming realises just how much damage he has done to the anti-graft body he was appointed to defend and protect.

No doubt he is beginning to understand the danger to himself. After all, he is now the subject of a criminal investigation by his former colleagues, some of whom are undoubtedly angry at the way their own image has been tarnished by association.

But judging from the mindset that led him to behave as he did, it is possible he does not fully grasp the consequences for the Independent Commission Against Corruption itself.

From the facts made public so far, from the audit report and from replies to media enquiries, Tong entertained mainland officials lavishly on a number of occasions and gave some of them expensive gifts.

The justification for the frequency and the identity of the guests has been challenged. And the fact these favours were paid for from public funds has caused considerable outrage.

But that is not the main point. If, as some have speculated, the favours were granted to secure a future benefit for the individual concerned, then the funding source is at most an aggravating factor in the matter.

Even if he had paid for the meals and gifts from his own pocket, he could be said to have sailed very close to actual corruption. At the very least, he must be given a chance to respond to these allegations.

One of Hong Kong people's deepest fears in the run-up to the handover in 1997 and since then is that our city would be dragged back into the dark days of corruption by closer interaction with the mainland. We put this nightmare behind us in the 1970s and we certainly do not want it back.

I do not think it ever occurred to anyone that the ICAC - which we saw as our first line of defence against corruption - could turn out to be the weak link. So the first consequence of this saga is a loss of public confidence in the integrity of the commission.

There are other losses less readily visible. Disciplined services and those who work in them are a special breed. Our firemen run into burning buildings while everyone else tries to get out of them. A young police constable walking the beat at night would go down a dark alley if he hears a cry for help while ordinary citizens might turn away or pretend not to hear it.

Our ICAC officers are of a similar ilk and set themselves very high standards. From the earliest days, they have been subject to a degree of social ostracism. To generate and maintain this courage, this internal fortitude, the organisations concerned need to build up staff morale.

Working closely together in tough circumstances binds the people together. Like the three musketeers, it is a case of "all for one and one for all".

Suddenly finding out that your leader has feet of clay has a devastating impact.

The fact that harmony has been disturbed is evidenced by the other tales emerging about the Tong era. Allegedly turning up late for work, using office facilities to prepare Chinese herbs, bringing a girlfriend and a golfing buddy to official events - all this tittle tattle might not amount to much except for its source: it must have come from within the ICAC, so the solidarity is broken.

And how is all this going to look to the new administration in Beijing with its emphasis on fighting corruption and frugality in official entertainment?

Finally, the revelations have put our Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on the spot. Tong was appointed by his predecessor of course, so that responsibility cannot be laid at Leung's door. But what comes next? Surely the best thing now would be to bring maximum sunlight to bear on the situation.

Unless the ICAC investigation turns up evidence to justify prosecution - in which case, Tong must be presumed innocent pending the outcome of the trial - then there must be some kind of enquiry held in public. That is the only way to restore public confidence in the ICAC, restore harmony within it, and provide an opportunity for the former commissioner to explain his side of the story.

If we act now wisely and fairly, and are seen to do so, then maybe some good can come even from this situation. But up to now, it's a pretty sad day.

Mike Rowse is search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at Chinese University