HK Experience in Fighting Corruption-19July1997
Mr Tony Kwok Man wai,
Independent Commission Against Corruption, Hong Kong
to the "Consensus
Against Corruption" Conference
of the Institute for Policy Research,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
19 July, 1997
The Hong Kong Experience in Fighting Corruption
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am honoured to be able to share with you Hong Kong's experience in fighting corruption. It has been almost a quarter of a century since Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption was set up to fight the evil of corruption. In that time, we are proud to say that we have achieved a fair degree of success in contributing to Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. Hong Kong is now one of the world's leading financial centres. We are 5th largest in terms of the volume of external banking transactions; 5th largest in terms of foreign exchange transactions and 7th largest in terms of stock market capitalization. There are now more than 800 regional headquarters of overseas companies in Hong Kong.
I shall attempt to analyse how the ICAC became part of the equation that has delivered to Hong Kong high living standards and an enviable quality of life. First let me just quickly paint a picture of our history and overall strategy.
The Hong Kong Setting
The Independent Commission Against Corruption, or ICAC for short, was born in 1974. The social setting then was one of significant economic and population growth, coupled with rapid urbanisation. In the process of rapid social and economic changes. Hong Kong had to grapple with numerous problems. Unfortunately, therefore, corruption in many parts of the government and outside had not been given due attention. It was a time when many public officials demanded bribes (and this was particularly bad among the police) and illegal commissions in the business sector was commonplace. To the general public, corruption was an open secret and had to be recognised as a way of life. But a new citizenry that was young, educated and concerned with public affairs was beginning to demand positive action from the Government. The fleeing from Hong Kong of a senior police officer who faced prosecution for corruption triggered off a storm of public protests and prompted a public inquiry. The principal recommendation from that inquiry was to establish a dedicated, independent and powerful agency to deal with corruption, with its Commissioner directly responsible to the Governor (now the Chief Executive).
When planning the establishment of the ICAC, the Hong Kong Government realised that the Commission could not win the battle against corruption only by punishing the corrupt. It must also improve the bureaucratic systems and machinery and bring about fundamental changes in public attitudes towards corruption. It therefore devised a unique formula. The law that set up the ICAC required an integrated fight against corruption on three fronts - investigation, prevention and education - a three-pronged attack. To do this, we have three functional departments, Operations, Corruption Prevention,, and Community Relations. The Operations Department investigates allegations of corruption and others that it uncovers through intelligence. The Corruption Prevention Department secures changes in work practices and procedures in the public sector conducive to corruption. It also responds to requests for advice from the private sector. The Community Relations Department educates the public on the evils of corruption and seeks their advice and support in the fight against corruption. It uses face-to-face contact and a multimedia approach. Each of the ICAC's departments capitalises and builds on the performance of the others. Our achievements over the past 24 years have fully demonstrated that this formula worked.
A Change in Attitude
So just how effective and successful have we been?
Looking back, the ICAC has achieved no less than a quiet revolution in the public attitude towards corruption in Hong Kong. There has been a complete change in our culture, from tolerance of corruption to total rejection. In recent years, Hong Kong is consistently rated by international surveys as one of the top three least-corrupt places in Asia. We now have the complete backing of the community in our work. From meek acceptance of or sullen resignation to the corruption situation 24 years ago, we now have a community that deplores corruption and resists it. Back in 1974, only one third of the complainants were willing to identify themselves. Now, two-thirds of people would do so. More than 90% of our annual total of about 3,000 corruption reports come direct from the public of Hong Kong.
A Cleaner Public Service
Secondly, we now have a fundamentally cleaner public service. In 1974,, the ICAC's first year, corruption reports concerning government departments comprised 86% of all reports. Last year, that figure was substantially reduced to 42%. In 1974, 45% of corruption reports concerned the police. Last year, that figure was down to 19%. Indeed, within our first three years we broke the back of syndicated corruption in Hong Kong. Now no one in Hong Kong would ever think of paying bribes to get licences, or to install electricity meters.
A Vigilant Private Sector
Thirdly, we now have a private sector that is fully alert to the dangers of corruption and is vigilant against it. This was in sharp contrast to the early years when some parts of the business community were hostile towards the ICAC and were uncooperative in our investigations. Some even branded our work as "interference with the free market economy". Since the late 80s, some 54% of corruption reports concern the private sector. More business organisations are now seeking our advice on corruption prevention. They realise that prevention is better, and cheaper, than cure. Over the past ten years or so, some 1,800 of them did just that. A few years ago the ICAC started encouraging some 2,600 publicly-listed and large private companies to adopt corporate codes of conduct to improve their business ethics. 68% have now done so, a healthy figure by world standards.
Factors for Success
In achieving what we did, I think we owe our success to a winning combination of five main factors.
First, the Government's top leadership recognised the seriousness of the problem of corruption and is determined to deal with it. The Chief Executive has on a number of occasions reiterated the firm commitment of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to fight corruption. This is backed up by adequate resource and financial support. The budget for our current fiscal year is about US$78 million and current staff level is about 1,200. Consistent provision of adequate resources to fight corruption has ensured that the long-term benefits accruing from anti corruption measures can be sustained. Short term anti corruption campaigns with overtones of political opportunism and expediency have little chance of success.
Strong Legal Framework
Second, we owe our success to a sound legal framework that gives us the necessary powers to do the job. Corruption is one of the most difficult crimes to detect and special powers are necessary to achieve results. Thus, for example, we can examine bank accounts and business and private documents. We are given powers similar to the police to arrest without warrant any person suspected of committing a corruption offence, detain suspects for up to 48 hours for further enquiry and grant bail to persons arrested. Our ordinances also empower investigators to search suspects and premises, as well as seize and detain evidence. Powers are also given to us to seize travel documents or restrain a suspect from disposing of his property by a court's order. In exercising most of these powers judicial supervision is required. Indeed, our powers have been comprehensively reviewed in the past few years to ensure a proper balance between human rights and the efficiency of the ICAC. Any inconvenience is the price that we must pay to ensure greater accountability and consequently greater public confidence in the ICAC.
To tackle hardcore corrupt officials and bring to book those who receive bribes over a period of time even when the assets they possess cannot be linked to any specific corrupt deal, the law provides a potent weapon by creating an offence for a government official to maintain a standard of living or possess/control assets which are not commensurate with his official emoluments, unless he is able to provide a satisfactory explanation to the court. The maximum penalty for corruption offences is ten years' imprisonment and a fine of up to HK$1,000,000 with confiscation of bribes or unexplained wealth.
Powerful though the ICAC may be, we are subject to a healthy and effective system of checks and balances. Prosecution powers are vested with the Secretary for Justice. The Judiciary is independent. The Legislature asks probing questions on funding and performance. It reviews and amends our legal powers as circumstances require. In addition, our performance is monitored by four advisory committees with members drawn from all sectors of the community. All are chaired by non-official members. These committees meet regularly and closely examine our work. Collectively they have made the ICAC a more open and accountable organisation. For example, the Operations Review Committee requires us to report on all cases of completed investigations, cases of search with warrants issued by the Commissioner instead of by the court, and to submit progress reports on suspects put on bail for six months or more and investigations lasting over a year.
In a fight against corruption, a key factor is community support. A comprehensive and long-term programme of fostering community support is therefore the third factor for our success. We have developed specific programmes for various sectors of the community to build up support for and confidence in the Commission. Thus we undertake to explain anti-bribery laws in layman's language, educate the young at schools and universities, encourage business organisations to adopt prevention measures, and urge the public to report promptly any suspicion of corruption offences. By these means, and through our eight regional offices accessible to local residents throughout the territory, the community is involved in seminars, projects, talks and a great variety of activities where the message of a clean society is promoted. They are also exposed to our very successful television advertisements and drama series on the same theme. All these efforts over the years have borne fruit. In our 1996 opinion survey, 99% of all respondents thought that the ICAC deserved their support.
The fourth factor is our independence. It is one that cannot be overemphasized. Being an independent agency entirely dedicated to fighting corruption and separated from the civil service, it means we are free from interference by other parts of the executive arm and ensures maximum flexibility in action. No one, not even the Chief Executive,, can order us to stop an investigation. We are "Independent" in name and independent in action. The ICAC investigates any person or organisation alleged to have committed an offence under the anti-corruption laws of Hong Kong irrespective of their background, position and nationality. Once begun, a corruption investigation goes through a rigorous and unbending process and is subject to scrutiny by the Operations Review Committee made up of non-ICAC people. Our staff are independently recruited and trained to the highest standard. More than 50% of them possess over 10 years of experience in the ICAC.
can no longer be contained in one place these
days. It recognises no boundaries. The corrupt are quick to exploit divergent laws, languages and bureaucratic systems in various jurisdictions. The banking system has enabled money to be transferred quickly making it very difficult to trace. The need for the development of regional and international liaison and cooperation between anti-corruption law enforcement agencies has become increasingly bigger. And good international cooperation is precisely the fifth factor for our success.
In Hong Kong, we have established close links with many overseas countries in order to trace transnational money movements and the passage of criminals. We have also hosted and assisted in organising many regional and international conferences to share our experience with other anti-corruption agencies. The ICAC will be sending a high-level delegation to attend the Eighth International Anti-Corruption Conference in Peru this September. In November of this year we will be hosting the Fifth Regional Seminar on Corruption-Related Crime in Hong Kong. We now have periodic meetings with representatives of such agencies as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Australian Federal Police, and the U. S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep each other informed of developments and problems. The ICAC now acts as a Regional Information Co-ordination Centre for the development of anti-corruption efforts in the Asia-Pacific Region and publishes a regular newsletter.
I hope my brief presentation has given you some pointers. Each country or region is a unique blend of its own history and culture, its own political system and beliefs, and is at its own stage of economic and social development. What holds good in one place may not be valid in another. But sometimes the experience gained in the fight against the universal phenomenon of corruption can provide some guidance elsewhere.
I would like to take this opportunity to address some international concern about the continued effectiveness of the ICAC after Hong Kong's change in sovereignty. Let me lay out the facts. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has provided for the continuation of the ICAC and our strong and independent role. The handover ceremonies of Hong Kong are now history but the ICAC is still here. Reports of corruption are still coming to us. In fact we are now proactively seeking out those "satisfied parties" in corruption in the heartland of public and business sectors that might otherwise never be reported. Our legal and judicial systems are intact. We have received and are receiving the maximum support from the Government and the community. We see no reason why the ICAC cannot continue to play an important role within the HKSAR Government in maintaining a stable and prosperous Hong Kong. We have the same dedicated and experienced staff to fight corruption after the change of sovereignty. Our very professional staff have employment contracts that take them beyond this century. It is business as usual. In fact in the first nine days of July we launched 10 small operations arresting 39 people. Anyone who suggested the ICAC would lose its effectiveness will be proved wrong.
So the spotlight is now trained on Hong Kong to see if the "One Country, Two Systems" concept can succeed. An important measurement for the success of that concept is whether Hong Kong will remain a clean society free from corruption. We have full confidence in our capability to effectively deal with this problem. Corruption attacks what Hong Kong people cherish most: a fair and orderly society. It is my firm belief that they will stand behind us. The Hong Kong experience in fighting corruption is one of hard-won success. A community that has enjoyed the benefits of living without fear of corruption will not let this evil to rear its ugly head again.