and the ICAC: cops and builders
SCMP June 3
Civil service sleaze is of increasing concern in Hongkong.
It partly accounts for the fact that the government seems to be on a
political winner in its drive to reduce civil service pay. Legislated
reduction of agreed salaries is surely not the right way to address
the pay issue.
Comparisons with the private sector are inexact. Starting
salaries and fringe benefits have certainly been reduced for many in
the private sector, and the self-employed and small businesses have
especially suffered. But there is not much sign of actual reductions
for existing staff at such large employers as Hang Seng Bank or Kowloon
Motor Bus. The apolitical way to deal with the problem would be an extended
pay freeze, forcing higher productivity through a hiring freeze and
reducing fringe benefits such as housing loans, and (for the future)
ending inflation-proofed, defined-benefit pensions.
Another longer term saving would be to stop senior civil
servants from taking early, pensioned retirement then collecting huge
salaries from quasi government bodies. It should be remembered that
retirement at 60 or less is a legacy of a colonial era when life-spans
were shorter and retired officials were expected to leave the territory
not hang around trying to capitalise on their past roles.
The current situation whereby they go to plum jobs, whether
as acknowledgment payment for past services to the private sector, or
to some ex-civil servants' "clubhouse" is an invitation to sleaze. Well
done to Kowloon Canton Railway chairman Michael Tien for putting his
managing director K.Y. Yeung in his place. Mr Yeung was an able public
servant but the mandarins have seldom felt a need to be accountable.
Public disquiet over the civil service - not least the
"disciplined" parts of it -- seems to focus at least as much on its
tendency to secrecy, arrogance and lack of accountability as on its
generous (especially in the upper reaches) pay and perks scales. These
deficiencies have long existed among an elite trained by the British
to believe in its own wisdom. But they have been exacerbated by the
authoritarian tendencies of Tung Chee-hwa's "executive-led" government,
which seems to have reversed the modest efforts of Chris Patten to make
the civil service more transparent and accountable.
So it was disturbing to see the lack of discipline showed
by the head of the police, Y.P.Tsang , in publicly criticising the Independent
Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) following the arrest of a senior
officer. It is not clear to me whether the ICAC acted appropriately
in the way that it announced the arrest. The ICAC does have some reputation
for seeing smoke and crying "fire". However, the appropriate way for
the police to deal with the matter is to raise it with the Chief Secretary
or, even better, the Chief Executive, to whom the ICAC has always been
One would have expected Mr Tsang's indiscipline to have
earned the public rebuke of the head of the civil service, Sir Donald
Y.K. Tsang. It is not clear whether his failure to speak out was the
result of brotherly loyalty, or reflected a desire within the administration
to let the police chief have his say as a way of clipping the wings
of the ICAC. As its treatment of the Court of Final Appeal, and of the
Legislative and Urban councils has shown, the administration resents
limitations on its powers.
For all its faults, the ICAC still has a semblance of
independence and enjoys a higher level of public trust than the police.
Critics of the ICAC often focus on two issues. Firstly, its successes
mostly seem to be against low to middling level public servants, police
included, rather than those who make the big money from gambling, drug
and prostitution rackets or from buying favourable decision on property
development, immigration and other issues. It is the high level of the
recent arrest that makes it doubly important that the ICAC is seen to
be independent. The lack of official reaction against Commissioner Tsang's
behaviour puts that in doubt.
The second issue is whether the ICAC concentrates too
much on the police and not enough on other public servants. Police are
highly visible and their contact with the public exposes them to complaints.
Not so the civil servants hiding behind self-proclaimed confidentiality
in town planning, buildings and related departments making decisions
often worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Given the number of cases
of buildings being built (or in some cases not built) in apparent contravention
of planning and other requirements, one would have expected rather more
action in this area.
Of course, it is difficult when both sides of a corrupt
deal are satisfied. Who will know enough blow the whistle when civil
servants receive an advantage, now or in the future, for a generous
interpretation of a planning requirement or building code? That is why
the secrecy of departments such as planning and buildings is such a
Attention has recently been focussed on the possibility
that a part of Stanley Market, from which stall-holders were evicted,
be developed into a hotel or shopping mall. No one really know what
is going on, who or how much money is involved or how to stop the process
of so-called "planning" by which fat cat developers bend civil servants
to their will.
Last December I mentioned in this column the refusal
of the Buildings department to let owners of the residential building
of which I am an owner/occupier see a plan which it had approved to
re-develop one half of what is one building. After four months of letter-writing
I have received their explanation. It reads like something from Kafka.
Firstly it maintains that even to show the drawings to someone else
would be against the Copyright ordinance - even though that Ordinance
exempts provision of copies documents in the public domain!
Then it argues that the government's Code on Access to
Information also prevents it from enabling directly affected parties,
let alone the public at large, from seeing the plans it has approved.
Firstly, it claims that the application was made on the understanding
that it would not be disclosed! Why, other than if it had an ulterior
motive, would a department accept an application based on the prior
assumption of secrecy?
The Buildings department is even more culpable because
the Code allow disclosure if "public interest in disclosure outweighs
any harm that would result". What harm could possibly result from disclosure
of approved building plans to the public, let alone the other owners
of the said building.
Secondly, the Buildings department also alleges that
disclosure would be contrary to the section (2.16) of the Code which
prohibits disclosure "which would harm the competitive or financial
position of any person". It would be interesting to know which persons
the department has in mind in invoking this clause. Is it a reference
to the developer, in which case why should disclosure of approved plans
be a potential cause of loss unless the plans were contrary to some
law, regulation or legitimate interest? Or is this a reference to the
I do not know the answer. But I do know that lawyers
to whom I have spoken are amazed at the department's interpretations
of the Copyright ordinance and Information Access code. "Self-serving
to the point of being an abuse of power", said one.
If the ICAC is serious about corruption prevention it
badly needs to take action against secrecy in the departments dealing
with planning, land, housing and buildings. It is no wonder that anecdotal
mention of large scale sleaze is so common - and that the police feel
they are unfairly targeted by the ICAC. ends