Jul 28, 2017

The Birth of the ICAC

Today Hong Kong is one of the most corruption-free places in the world but it certainly wasn’t always that way. There was a time when people joked that Hong Kong had one of the finest police forces that money could buy. So, how bad was it? Very bad, is the simple answer.

The root cause of corruption

During the 1960s and 70s, Hong Kong went through a period of massive population growth and accelerated industry expansion. Economic development was spiralling. While managing to maintain social order and provide many of the bare essentials such as housing and basic public services, the government could not meet the insatiable needs of the ever-increasing masses. As such, the situation provided a very fertile environment for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of this shortfall. For many “the backdoor route” was the only way to make a living and secure their most basic needs. So, necessity had truly become the mother of invention.

The malignancy within

Hong Kong’s public sector gradually became a hot bed of corruption and this soon spun out of control. Police officers offered protection to those involved in vice, gambling, prostitution and other nefarious activities. Government officials demanded bribes from those applying for public services like applying for school places for their children or public housing. Ambulance personnel demanded “tea money” before conveying sick people to hospitals and even nurses wanted tips before providing care in hospitals.

Demonstrators demanded action be taken

Law and order were coming under threat and many in the community had fallen victim to this new malignancy that was slowly growing unchecked. The government, it seemed, was powerless to deal with the situation and the public at large had to suffer in silence. It had developed into a major social problem and was basically a slowly-ticking time bomb. All efforts at control appeared futile but the public’s patience was wearing thin and people began venting their anger especially towards the authorities – and rightly so. Public resentment escalated and this came to a head when a senior police officer, Peter Godber, already under investigation for corruption, was able to slip through the security net and flee Hong Kong.

The people had had enough – something had to be done

This was the last straw for many and sparked mass demonstrations and demands for the government to do something and put an end to this scourge on society. Rallies were held in Victoria Park and other venues around the city condemning the government’s inactivity and demanding reforms and action. The protestors insisted that Godber should be extradited from his safe-haven in England and made to stand trial.

The infamous Peter Godber

Godber kept a notebook of all expected graft collections within his division

Peter Godber had been a Chief Superintendent in the police and under investigation since early 1973. He’d managed to amass a fortune of some HK$4.3 million – a tidy sum in those days – which was six-times the amount commensurate with his earnings even as a senior police officer. It was suspected that he had come by this money through corrupt means. The Attorney General of Hong Kong had given him one week to explain the source of his assets but during this period he had used his special airport pass to by-passed immigration and customs and board a plane bound for London. It was this brazen act of defiance that unleashed the public outcry.

Time for some action

It was time for definitive action and the governor of the time, Sir Murray Maclehose detected the urgency of the situation. A senior Puisne judge, Sir Alastair Blair-Kerr was appointed to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the escape. He compiled two reports. One detailed the circumstances of the actual escape while the other dealt with recommendations on what should be one to rebuild public confidence. Topmost on that list was that the Anti-corruption Office should be separated from the police force and be handled by a totally independent body – you couldn’t have the police investigating their own. In all fairness, The Police Anti-corruption office had always had very limited powers and been seriously under-staffed.

Governor Maclehose urged LegCo to establish an independent investigative body

Maclehose was quick to act on this advice and delivered a speech to the Legislative Council where he sought to establish an entirely independent investigative body that was totally separate from any other government department. This spawned a “wind of change” feeling in the community and the sense amongst the populace that the stage was being set for an effective anti-corruption control system.

Establishment of the ICAC

Godber arrives back in Hong Kong to stand trial

Public dissatisfaction began to mellow with the setting up of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) which came into being in February of 1974 – initially housed in the very aptly named Sincere Building in Central. Its first order of business was to bring Godber to trial. He was successfully extradited early the following year and stood trial for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and for accepting bribes. He was found guilty on both counts and duly sentenced to four years in Stanley Prison. Despite a mountain of evidence amassed over many years, only one witness testified against him. They got their man but they never succeeded in recovering his ill-gotten gains.

This newly-formed Commission took a three-pronged approach in its fight against corruption – law enforcement, prevention and education and the same recipe is still used to the present day. During its initial years, the newly-formed body many citizens and civil servants were investigated and brought to trial. Others hated the commission for cutting off their extra earning source through payoffs.

Near mutiny and the police amnesty

Sadly, it was perceived by many police officers that the commission was concentrating on investigating the police using the old Anti-corruption office files and in late 1977 dozens of officers stormed the ICAC offices and attacked the staff.

Angry police officers attacked the ICAC headquarters

Fearing that anarchy might set in and law and order break down extra military forces stationed in Brunei were put on high alert should they be required to fly to Hong Kong to assist the local militia in keeping the peace. The governor made the brave decision of issuing an amnesty and pardoning cases of corruption that had occurred prior to that date. Only very serious cases would continue to be investigated. The ICAC’s attention then turned towards the other disciplines services, government departments and then, even later, to the private sector.

Major ICAC cases

1974-75: Former police chief superintendent Peter Fitzroy Godber was charged with bribery and conspiracy after investigators linked to bank accounts worth HK$4.3 million. Extradited from England in 1975, he was convicted and sentenced to four year’s jail.

1976-78: ICAC shut down a heroin distribution racket at the Yamautei fruit market in West Kowloon. Here police had been receiving kickbacks as protection money from drug dealers. Eighty-seven officers were arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in one of the ICAC's biggest single operations.

1976-79: A former detective sergeant, Lui Lok, was forced to take early retirement in 1968 when he was unable to explain his considerable assets. Following further investigations, he was arrested and tried in 1978. He was duly convicted, sentenced to two year’s imprisonment and fined HK$16 million.

1983-2000: An investigation of structural defects at 26 public housing blocks in Kwai Fong built between 1964 and 1973 led to certain construction companies who had cut corners after winning these multi-million-dollar government contracts. Three contractors were later convicted.

1986-87: Fraudulent loan practices at the Overseas Trust Bank which clocked HK$700 million in bad debts were unearthed. The bank's chairman and some senior executives fled Hong Kong but were subsequently extradited and received severe prison sentences.

1998-2000: The chief property manager of the Government Property Agency was arrested for accepting kickbacks that favoured one company, in exchange for contracts worth over HK$100 million. He was imprisoned for 30 months.

Recent History

More recent high-profile cases have included pursuing of Thomas and Raymond Kwok, senior executives of property giant Sun Hung Kai Properties and their corrupt dealings with former chief secretary Rafael Hui. This landed Thomas Kwok, Hui and two others in jail. In late 2016, former Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang was found guilty following a protracted investigation by ICAC of his having received special favours in exchange for granting special consideration on applications for broadcasting licenses without informing the Executive Council of a possible conflict of interest. For this he received 20 months behind bars.

Rafael Hui, Thomas Kwok and Raymond Kwok stand trial for corruption

Controversies within

The commission continues to wield much influence and garner the public’s confidence. This despite the actions of the former ICAC chief, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, who was accused in 2012 of misusing public funds granted to the body during his period of tenure. This case is currently an ongoing investigation. During that same year, a total of 19 complaints and some 57 allegations were levelled at the agency and its officers. Many of these related to misconduct, some to the neglect of duties and yet others to abuse of power.

Timothy Tong - under investigation by the body he headed

It is quite understandable that such an organisation is going to come in for criticism and judgement since by its mandate it is going to tread on many toes. It is also true to say that, since its inception over 40 years ago, it has been well perceived in the public psyche and has had a very positive impact on the overall development of the city in recent years. Over 95 of respondents in a recent poll strongly supported its work.

With the mainland crackdown on graft spearheaded by President Xi Jinping and such high-profile cases as that of Bo Xilai, some questions if the ICAC will really be relevant in Hong Kong in years to come? Others question if, following its success in making Hong Kong such a corruption-free environment, it has a role to play in helping reduce graft on the mainland. Whatever the case, it is something that will take time – it cannot be achieved overnight.

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