Failing the public morality test

SCMP November 14 2005

Corruption comes in many forms. We know about the obvious: the policeman who gets sex for turning a blind eye to prostitution; the buildings inspector rewarded for signing off on sub-standard work. That's the norm for the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Then there's what we know to be corrupt but is seldom prosecuted because of the unlikelihood of discovery, let alone proof: the holiday in Australia for the middle manager who awards the subcontracts; the Lands Department official whose offshore bank account is richer a couple of years after 'misreading' a planning regulation.

But there is another form of corruption which is as insidious, even if the link between a decision and a payoff is too remote to come within the law. That there is no identifiable crime does not mean there is no outrage against public morality. Any action by an official which he or she knows is not in the wider public interest, but is undertaken in the expectation or hope of a reward in the future, falls into that category.

That is something Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen should think about now that he has started talking about the 'privatisation of morality'. Instead of worrying about gay sex, Mr Tsang's moral energies would be better spent on ensuring that the public conduct of officials does not fall into the mutual back-scratching that seems so often to characterise the relationship between them and business. It may not be corrupt in a legal sense. But is there much difference between making some favourable decisions in expectation of a favour in five years, and the petty official who pockets a few thousand dollars in return for a favour today?

I commend the recent five-part series in this newspaper on competition policy, or lack thereof. The existence of the monopolies and oligopolies, from pig importers to ports and power, retailing to construction, have often been written about. But to see it all there in detail was enlightening - and shocking.

It is shocking that leading companies can conspire to cheat the Housing Authority by rigging prices at extortionate levels. It is shocking that laws are framed in such a way that this is not actually illegal.

It is even more shocking that the perpetrators have ready access to the 'business-friendly' government which they themselves cheated.

What shines through the series is that the monopolies and oligopolies are all a product of decisions by civil servants, backed by representatives of the beneficiary groups who sit on the legislative and executive councils, and 'advisory' bodies.

Mr Tsang talks a lot about open government, but in reality he hides all kinds of dubious deals involving the privatisation of public assets behind bogus 'confidentiality'.

The same executive leadership, meanwhile, seems incapable of action against Hong Kong's silent killer - pollution - because bureaucrats and their Exco allies do not want to offend their friends, the polluters.

Its town planning system exists mainly to rubber-stamp decisions made by the world's highest-paid bureaucrats, which so often just happen to suit the big developers and ignore the public.

Mr Tsang should take note of a recent comment in the Financial Times: 'Only in Hong Kong does authority bow before property developers as demigods, deferring to their wisdom on civic issues ... The biggest obstacle to progress is not its communist masters to the north. It is the bosses of its peculiar brand of corporatist capitalism who call the shots at home.'

Can you, not they, call the shots on behalf of the public interest, Mr Tsang? Or is the morality of your public sector insufficiently mature?



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