Hong Kong's anti-corruption slogan used to be loud and clear - "Our advantage is you and the ICAC". Thanks to the hard work of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the support of the community over the past few decades, the city distinguishes itself with a clean business environment and a largely corruption-free government. Sadly, the slogan does not resonate as loudly as it used to after a series of high-profile cases involving top officials, one of whom used to be the ICAC commissioner.
The advisory committee on corruption is rightly concerned that the negative news might have undermined the city's image as a clean society. Although the commission's survey found 95.3 per cent of respondents continued to express support in ICAC's work, the figure was a four-year low. Together with the biggest-ever drop in complaints received last year - down by one-third to 2,652 cases - the situation is hardly reassuring.
The advisory chief noted that complaints in connection with building management had decreased by 36 per cent, which he said was probably due to higher public awareness. It remains unclear whether this is the case. It would be worrying if the drop stemmed from a lack of confidence in the watchdog. The trend should be closely monitored.
The outrage stirred by the ex-commissioner's lavish entertainment, trips and gifts for working partners underlines the high public expectations of officials' conduct and integrity. Their powers in formulating policies and law enforcement make them vulnerable targets of bribes and other forms of graft. As observed by another adviser who was formerly secretary for the civil service, officials abusing powers for personal gain have become a matter of concern. The mode of corruption has apparently switched from accepting bribes to making personal gain that may involve a conflict of interest with their official duties. This is particularly worthy of attention, as new civil servants are no longer given lifelong pensions as retirement protection. The warning should be taken seriously.
To say that the ICAC is the cornerstone of Hong Kong's success is an understatement. It remains the institutional pillar that sets the city apart from the rest of China and the region. But the watchdog can only work effectively with firm public support. Every effort has to be made to guard against erosion of our fine tradition. It is to be hoped that our pride in being a corruption-free society can soon be fully restored.