Corporate governance issues came crashing through Asia's doors during the 1997-98 financial crisis. But it arguably took Enron's collapse and subsequent scandals in the United States to focus local minds on the permanently changed landscape that has left reform as the only option. Not so long ago SAR regulatory-issue pow wows were a navel-gazing affair dominated by institutional turf wars and earnest intentions, guaranteed not to be acted upon. Yesterday's conference hosted by the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing was notable for what the HKEx said it did not want to do, but the debate has changed. A series of similar gatherings across Hong Kong in recent weeks has seen the volume turned up and something approaching common purpose. Few would contend that Hong Kong's markets are not riven by abuses. That the balance between the monetary rewards from rules-breaking and the risk of getting caught is way out of whack looks to have penetrated government thinking. New listing sponsors are coming under the microscope even if remedies remain poorly spelt out. Self-realisation is a powerful emotion and Securities and Futures Commission executive director Ashley Alder's argument that the present system has in-built incentives for professional advisers and firms to break the rules with minimal risk of being caught goes to the heart of the matter. Whether Minister for Financial Services and the Treasury Frederick Ma Si-hang's commitment to take to task new listing sponsors for failures to play their gate-keeping role will determine whether Hong Kong's markets achieve the market-imposed 'differentiation' that Morgan Stanley argues is forcing better governance standards. Good governance starts at home but Hong Kong's challenge is complicated by cross-border issues. The Euro-Asia Agricultural (Holdings) affair reminds of the contradiction in trying to run a first-world market without the mechanisms to monitor financial reporting or powers of enforcement on the mainland. Equally apparent is the fact the mainland is fast catching up in the form if not the substance of good governance. That a senior China Securities and Regulation Commission executive has the self-confidence to publicly disparage behaviour in its own markets while outlining a programme of change points to awareness of how far the mainland has to travel and the costs of failure. The dark side of improving market behaviour in China was driven home by Hu Shuli, the irrepressible editor of scandal-busting magazine Caijing. The magazine faces a possibly ruinous lawsuit from a Shenzhen firm and Ms Hu admitted that its journalistic probing had limits depending on the prestige and patronage of its corporate targets. But in telling of the daily abuses committed in mainland markets and the lack of recourse open to investors she illustrated how far the agenda had shifted. How fast standards of behaviour improve in the increasingly seamless mainland and Hong Kong markets is an open question. HKEx deputy chief operating officer Lawrence Fok Kwong-man argued that any movement to US- or British-style market standards might take 50 years as ownership of firms gradually became diluted through generational change. That may be a grim prognosis and many argue that owner-managed businesses need an entirely different oversight approach than the disclosure-based systems of developed markets. What is clear is that the issues are at least being fully aired.