Timothy Tong faces several probes into his lavish style of entertaining while ICAC chief. Photo: Sam Tsang

Timothy Tong scandal: how to preserve ICAC's reputation

Dan Hough says the Legislative Council must take decisive action over Tong scandal

Over the years, the ICAC has proved itself to be an impressive force for rooting out corrupt practices. So the Timothy Tong Hin-ming scandal comes not just as a shock for Hong Kong, but also for those who look up to the ICAC as the very best anti-corruption agency in the world. And that is exactly what it is - the template that is held up worldwide, time and again, as to "how to do it" in terms of tackling corruption.

Of the 60 or so anti-corruption agencies around the world, the ICAC is seen as being in a league of its own. The respect it enjoys, the resources it can mobilise, the independence that it thrives on and the role it plays in educating citizens are second to none.

The Tong scandal doesn't render all this redundant; but if Hong Kong wants to preserve the Independent Commission Against Corruption's reputation then the Legislative Council needs to get its response to it right. Worryingly, this doesn't seem to have happened so far.

The Alex Tsui Ka-kit case of 20 years ago, where the then deputy director general was sacked after an investigation by Legco, shows that reputations that have been built up over years do not need to wane on the back of individual indiscretions. But that only applies if the response is clear, speedy and appropriate.

In practical terms, that means three things; firstly, an account of what exactly happened needs to be established. Secondly, this account needs to be measured against the ICAC's own rules and operating procedures. Finally, there needs to be a substantive response; if the ICAC's rules have been broken - whether it be in a formal sense or in terms of their spirit - then appropriate punishments need to be meted out. If the rules themselves are not doing the task demanded of them, then they need to be updated and modernised.

Emile Durkheim, the great French sociologist, once argued that deviant behaviour can actually be a good thing.

It may just be that this latest episode will help the ICAC get back to its core business of rooting out corrupt practices elsewhere.

Sometimes, in other words, a case of corruption can remind everyone of exactly what it is they are trying to avoid. It can prompt self-reflection and a genuine interest in reviewing what may have long simply been assumed to be best practices.

At times, it takes a high-profile scandal to prompt such reflection and this could be such a moment for the ICAC.

So, if the outside world perceives the three steps - outline, analyse and act upon - to have been taken, then it may be that in the medium and longer term, the ICAC actually comes out of this sorry episode stronger than before.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How to preserve ICAC's reputation in three steps