Hong Kong police

Barrister Anthony Neoh named to lead Hong Kong police watchdog in bid to restore public confidence after Occupy movement

Former chair of Securities and Futures Commission to start term next month

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2018, 6:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 11:03am

A legal heavyweight and former chairman of the city’s Securities and Futures Commission will lead Hong Kong’s police watchdog, bringing a surprising end to the incumbent chairman’s second term.

In a move seen as trying to restore public trust in the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) after the pro-democracy Occupy movement of 2014, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor appointed Anthony Francis Neoh SC, 71, to succeed Larry Kwok Lam-kwong as chairman from next month.

He is also widely known for serving as chief adviser to the China Securities Regulatory Commission in 1998, before the country’s stock market opened, at the invitation of former premier Zhu Rongji.

Neoh’s name has often surfaced as a possible Hong Kong justice minister, including in 2005 and last year. However, his area of expertise is security law and commercial arbitration – including a visit to Beijing on Thursday to handle a case there – and he has far less experience in human rights work.

In a response to the Post, Neoh downplayed his high-profile background.

“No one is ever ‘overqualified’ for public service,” he said. “One must treat any public office with a deep sense of humility and service.”

Asked whether Lam discussed with him how to lead the watchdog, Neoh said the chief executive “only told me to perform the duties set out in the IPCC Ordinance”.

The veteran barrister added he still had much to learn and needed time before he could share his thoughts on the council’s role or on relations between the force and society at large.

Neoh’s appointment also raised a question about why Kwok was not reappointed. It also resumes a tradition of the watchdog being led by senior counsels, as Kwok was the only solicitor ever to serve as chairman since its establishment as a statutory body in 1996.

Appointed in June 2014, Kwok was reappointed in May 2016, when he was eligible for a third term. His predecessor, Jat Sew-tong, and several key members served three terms for a total of six years. Each term is two years.

Kwok declined to comment on his not being reappointed.

“You should go and read the gazette,” he added, referring to the government’s official announcement.

During his term, tensions escalated between the police force and the public, notably after the street protests that marked the Occupy movement. Since October 2014, the IPCC has received 168 complaints. These included several high-profile cases, such as a two-year investigation into former superintendent Frankly Chu, who hit a passer-by with his baton in Mong Kok during the civil disobedience movement.

Police union chief led a walkout and criticised his bosses over Mong Kok riot

The watchdog later suggested police press charges against Chu. He was convicted in January this year, and released on bail pending appeal.

Public confidence in the force dropped sharply from 2011 to 2015, from 75 to 62 per cent, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong. But research in January and February this year found that confidence had risen to 79 per cent.

During Kwok’s time, the public was not particularly aware of the watchdog’s role
Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong, former IPCC member

Former IPCC member Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong said it was common for a chairman or council members to serve three terms or six years and unusual to step down this soon.

While he would not speculate why Kwok was not reappointed, Leung praised Neoh as well respected. He called the appointment “a move to get IPCC back on track and regain public trust”.

“During Kwok’s time, the public was not particularly aware of the watchdog’s role,” Leung added. “Its role was murky.”

All three vice-chairmen during his tenure were pro-establishment lawmakers, he noted, as he called for greater political diversity in the IPCC’s membership.

Vice-chairman and architectural and surveying sector lawmaker Tony Tse Wai-chuen also declined to comment on why Kwok was not reappointed.

But the NGO Civil Rights Observer slammed the outgoing chairman for not swiftly arranging inspection of police enforcement during the Occupy movement to prevent abuse.