Columns -Thoughts from London

Graft-busters cleaned up corruption

By Neville de Silva

One of the more interesting and certainly illuminating conversations I have had in recent months was the one last week with the head of Hong Kong’s anti-corruption body.

It has relevance for Sri Lanka where corruption, both in the public and private sectors is believed to be rife. Hong Kong provides a classic illustration of how widespread corruption was virtually eliminated and how it could be done if there is the will to do so, as there is no political interference and officers are dedicated to cleaning up bribery and corruption whether it be in government tendering and procurement to running elections. As Dr Timothy HM Tong, Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) told me its needs independence of action and persons of the utmost integrity to be engaged in tracking corruption and cracking down on it.

The relative positions of Hong Kong and Sri Lanka in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) show the enormous gap between the two places. Admittedly the CPI is not the perfect yardstick as it represents the perception of the public and sections of the business community on what they see as the least and most corrupt countries in descending order.
Yet it provides some kind of an evaluation that cannot be completely ignored as merely a public view of how corrupt you are.

There is another reason why it has relevance for Sri Lanka. When the idea of setting up the ICAC was being considered in the early 1970s to fight widespread corruption in Hong Kong, anti-corruption and anti-bribery laws in several countries were studied. When the law was finally drafted it had one provision from Sri Lanka’s Bribery Act, a provision which, if I remember correctly, was introduced by Felix Dias Bandaranaike as Justice Minister.

To put it in non-legalese, it was considered an offence for any civil servant to be in possession of assets disproportionate to his/her official income or living above his/her means. To do so was to be guilty of bribery/corruption it was presumed and the burden of proving one’s innocence lay with the individual. The ICAC made this an article of faith along with another provision relating to public servants. It was an offence for any civil servant to accept gifts, loans, discounts and passage even if there was no related corrupt dealing, unless specific permission was given.

It is interesting to note that in the September 2008 CPI Hong Kong is considered the 12th most corruption-free place while Sri Lanka stands in the 92nd position. One other statistic is important to show how Hong Kong has continued to improve its global image by cleaning up the remnants of corruption that still haunt that society. In 1997 when Hong Kong was reunified with China its position was 18 on the CPI. Ten years later it has improved its position whereas Sri Lanka has dropped further in public estimation.
Before Hong Kong reverted to China in July 1997 there were many skeptical articles particularly in the Western media whether the former British colony would continue to be corruption- free under Chinese rule given the widespread corruption prevailing in China. I remember reading one particular article in a November 1996 issue of Fortune Magazine while I was working in Hong Kong and wondering what the future held for the territory where I worked for 10 years and had come to love for its vibrancy and the freedom of expression I enjoyed more than anywhere else. It was a rather gloomy piece on Hong Kong’s future especially with regard to corruption and whether the ICAC would be a victim of the transference of sovereignty.

Timothy Tong dismisses such Cassandra-like prophecies of doom. He points out that in 1997 Hong Kong was No: 18 on the CPI. Today it is the 12th. Instead of going down in the index and being sullied by the return to China as some predicted, corruption is fast diminishing. Timothy Tong attributes several reasons for this. The Independent Commission Against Corruption is really independent not just in name. It is answerable only to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, right now Donald Tsang a former senior civil servant and financial secretary.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution that came into effect after the handover to China, states that the ICAC “shall function independently and will be accountable to the Chief Executive.”
This has not been a hollow promise. As the ICAC Commissioner told me there is no interference by anybody in the functioning of the body and it does so as it has always done. Unless it can function independently and freely it will not be taken seriously and its usefulness in tackling corruption at all levels will evaporate.

The background to the setting up of the ICAC and what Hong Kong was then and what it is now needs to be understood to appreciate what the ICAC has achieved. Corruption had seeped into every pore of Hong Kong society in its years as a British colony. The public service was corrupt, most of all the police force which seemed to have a close ‘business’ association with organized crime. As Timothy Tong says syndicated crime-illegal gambling, vice, drugs-was rampant and police provided these with protection. When the ICAC was established to fight this canker of crime and corruption, some called it “Mission Impossible.” Yet within three years the graft busters had smashed the corruption syndicates in the government. It prosecuted 247 government officials including 143 police officers. That was the end of syndicated crime.

Timothy Tong is not complacent however. There is still work to be done. Now with corruption in the public sector, especially among the police, generally under control, the emphasis is shifting to the private sector. Previously over 80% of the complaints used to be against public officials. Today 65% of the complaints is against the private sector. For the past 12 years or so, different international think-tanks have voted Hong Kong as the freest economy in the world. There are thousands of foreign companies based in Hong Kong with Asian and Chinese interests. Mainland Chinese firms are also operating in Hong Kong. Tong admits that when competition gets fierce the tendency for corruption and unethical practices increase. So the ICAC keeps a watch on the operations of private companies too. If the ICAC feels that their procedures are not transparent enough or could be open to corrupt practices, it informs them and even helps in setting up proper procedures.

As far as government tendering and procurement are concerned the ICAC head says that such procedures must be accountable. Everybody involved in a tender or procurement is held responsible. So transparency and accountability are vital underlying principles in the fight against corruption. The ICAC’s remit extends even to ensuring clean and corruption-free elections. One of the laws under which the ICAC operates is the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance.

If anybody thinks that the ICAC protects people at the top or their own, he cannot be more wrong. During my time in Hong Kong I have seen how the ICAC cracked down on senior officials including one of its top three officials- the deputy in its Operations Department. It was also responsible for prosecuting the second in command of criminal prosecutions, a New Zealand lawyer, for accepting $1.6 million in bribes to drop cases.

While Sri Lanka seems to be more adept at going after the “small fry” as somebody said the other day, for corruption, the ICAC could not care less whether the corrupt were small or big. Position, prestige and influence did not matter. The aim was to free the place of the corrupt. They should have no place in society. That is a lesson taught even to the very young by the ICAS’s educational programmes. Will we ever reach that stage?

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