EVER wondered what would happen in Hong Kong if a future head of Government or the Independent Commission Against Corruption was corrupt? You are not alone. A palpable fear can be discerned following the sacking without public reason of crack ICAC investigator Alex Tsui Ka-kit; just who and what is there to stop a future ICAC from abusing its sweeping powers? Would we, or those supposed to monitor the graft-busters, ever find out about a case of major abuse? Seeds of discontent sewn across the full spectrum of Hong Kong's widening political spectrum are sprouting into clear demands for a fresh look at the ICAC's extraordinary powers of investigation and confidentiality. News also came this week of plans to ask the ICAC to vet senior Government appointments from next year. No longer the domain of civil libertarians, fears have been fuelled by the fact that after 1997 whoever replaces the Governor - the only figure able to hold the ICAC to account - is no longer answerable to a democratically elected British Parliament. By 1997, most bodies enforcing British colonial rule will have been reined-in and no longer able to prevent abuses by any future Hong Kong administration. The police, having already taken on board the Bill of Rights, face further weakening of their powers of search and arrest, a watered-down Public Order Ordinance and a much smaller role for its shadowy Special Branch. But Government policy essentially allows just one organisation to roam free post-'97 - the ICAC. Until two weeks ago that is. Now legislators as diverse as United Democrat James To Kun-sun, the Liberal Party's Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, Chris Patten appointee Christine Loh Kung-wai and the sober legal representative, Simon Ip Sik-on, are calling for action. The Hong Kong University law faculty head, Professor Raymond Wacks, puts it simply: ''What we are looking at after 1997 is a possible monster; the fear of the ICAC becoming a secret police [unit] out of effective control is very real.'' At issue are two key points: the ICAC's powers and the institutional checks and balances which monitor its work. Since its inception in 1974 - a time when police and public sector graft was so bad it threatened the very rule of Government - the ICAC has successfully argued, with public support, that the complex nature of corruption demands wide powers. Most of those powers still exist today. While police are forced in virtually all their work to seek a magistrate's approval for search and seizure warrants, the ICAC Commissioner has that power delegated to him under the ICAC Ordinance. If he suspects a corruption-related offence, he can order his 800-odd operations officers to break into private property, and to seize and detain any evidence and suspects connected with that crime. Without ever going to court, his officers can demand full disclosure of all personal financial information from anybody if the Commissioner deems it necessary for an investigation. The ICAC refused to officially comment when asked, but it is understood there is frequent use of phone taps and electronic surveillance under delegated authority. The police must prove to the Governor such action is in the public interest under the Telecommunications Ordinance. And while the head of any other enforcement agency - police, customs, inland revenue, immigration - face Legislative Council and policy branch scrutiny, the Commissioner is answerable only to the Governor. This scrutiny takes place in a weekly meeting between Mr Patten and the present ICAC chief, Mr Bertrand de Speville, at Government House. But what and whom is discussed, what decisions are made and for what reasons, may go no further. It is classic Hong Kong executive-style colonial Government, relying on the good faith and professionalism of two men far from the scrutiny of Patten's ultimate masters in London. Even in the unlikely event of serious questioning of any such discussion in court or in the British Parliament, the Official Secrets Act and the need for national and operational security could easily be cited to keep something from the public arena. The five ICAC advisory committees, staffed entirely by Patten-appointees, now monitoring the work of the commission have little power. The Commissioner can bypass them if he needs to, while the Governor can choose to ignore any recommendation from them without giving any reason. Dr David Clark, Associate Professor of Legal Studies at Flinders University in South Australia and for 13 years a senior law lecturer at Hong Kong University, said he found the Hong Kong ICAC powers ''remarkable and dangerously ironic''. ''It is an organisation that was set up out of the need to ensure integrity in Government, yet its control comes down to the very integrity of just two people. ''It all comes down to faith in that British colonial premise that if we have 'jolly good chaps' running things, everything will be fine. I think things may be a bit beyond that now.'' Australia's anti-graft institutions, set up after the ICAC, are based on public grand jury-style hearings to establish the facts of a case before a decision on prosecution, all under the scrutiny of a state parliament. Their key powers lie in the ability to force a witness to testify, despite the fact he may incriminate himself. Mr Ip, a member of the Security Panel and the ICAC Advisory Committee on Operations, said the worst-case scenarios were now clear and meant new measures of accountability needed to be considered in Hong Kong. ''Nobody is saying that the ICAC aren't doing a good job or aren't responsible, but we must consider what could happen once the Westminster avenue of scrutiny is gone,'' he said. ''What if the Commissioner or the future Special Administrative Region chief executive [formerly Governor] are under investigation themselves, yet can still dismiss those investigating them without ever giving a reason? ''The ICAC can have all the powers they like, but they could be rendered impotent by something as fearful as that. It's another question of balance, but it's one we should be looking at now.'' Mr Ip said though in theory the Commissioner was accountable to the Governor, who in turn was accountable to Legco and the British Parliament, secrecy provisions could be used to keep silent. After 1997, with angry legislators demanding answers from a reticent executive, a constitutional crisis could quickly develop under the Basic Law, which allows for the SAR head to dissolve Legco in extreme conditions and also provides for his impeachment. Mr Ip urged changes to Section 8 (2) of the ICAC Ordinance, used to sack Mr Tsui and under which the Commissioner does not have to outline his reasons to anybody. ''Right now, if he was asked in court for the reason he could say: 'I don't have to give one.' If he had to give one to the person he was sacking, at least then he might have to defend it in open court.'' Ms Loh said that in addition to the human rights issues surrounding such wide powers, it was now time to look at strengthening accountability, possibly through a new legislative body or a Royal Commission. ''It's vital to remember that some of the people already lining up to be the first chief executive of the SAR government have commercial interests which would pose serious conflicts if they were to also head the ICAC. ''I really do not know what the answer is now, or what balance we should strike, only that it's now 20 years since the ICAC was formed and things have changed since then. ''Certainly, we need the power to stop corruption, but that does not mean we cannot look long and hard at how to administer that power.''