Show us your teeth
SCMP December 27, 2004
Where is the ICAC? Yes, it is busy going after lawyers' bar bills at the Foreign
Correspondents' Club, errant lower rank policemen, and some of the lesser lights
from the world of financial scams. But do not count on the anti-corruption
body to keep the higher echelons of society feeling threatened by its existence.
Reporting directly to the chief executive, it should feel entirely
independent of the rest of the bureaucracy and ought to fearlessly
advise Tung Chee-hwa
on how the rest of his administration, including the bureaus of Chief Secretary
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and housing chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung, organise
major projects and contracts.
Mr Tsang says that the tendering process for the West Kowloon "cultural" project
is being watched over by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Then how come it failed to raise objections to the woolly parameters
in the bid invitations, let alone to the single-winner concept?
Worst of all, how come the ICAC failed to blow the whistle on Mr Tsang
for allowing three bids to proceed when they all proposed plot ratios
grossly in excess of the guidelines? If guidelines are to be so imprecise,
the scope for arbitrary decision-making and, hence, corruption is massive.
Add in the secrecy surrounding the commercial aspects of the bids,
and you have a system closely resembling mainland "privatisation" processes,
with easy opportunities to create instant wealth for well-placed officials.
But do not expect too much from an ICAC run by Raymond Wong Hong-chiu,
a lifetime bureaucrat still far from the end of his career, who may
be understandably reluctant to become too unpopular with his civil
service peers, or with the ministerial system which put him there.
The position of ICAC commissioner has been gradually diminished since
its first incumbent and a take-no-prisoners operations director were
tough enough to confront the whole police force.
The government's determination to bypass the Legislative Council by
giving away land rather than going through the correct budgetary process
only adds to the problem by attempting to remove billion-dollar decisions
from debate and scrutiny. Legco may at times be obstructive, but it
provides some barrier not only against arbitrary government but also
the corruption that unbridled bureaucratic power brings with it.
That is all the more the case given the ease with which senior bureaucrats,
already furnished with hefty pensions, are allowed to take jobs with
large enterprises. If these are rewards for services rendered in the
past, the ICAC should be on the case. If the ex-bureaucrats are there
to lobby their former colleagues on behalf of their new employer, their
activities should be subject to intense scrutiny. Best of all, they
should be prevented from taking jobs other than in educational or charitable
organisations for at least five years after leaving government.
Then there is the failure of the ICAC to successfully prosecute cases
involving land and development rights. Mysterious "oversights" such
as the construction of Parkview in a country park, the loss of $100-million-plus
on the land premium for what is now Fairmont House, or the height of
Coda Plaza are, however, nothing new.
Only now have we learned that for years, in the 1980s, the government
failed to require payment of land premiums for the Discovery Bay development
- and for some reason or other the government still does nothing to
demand back payment or investigate those responsible.
Of course, colonial rule was even more arbitrary than today's system,
and the Legislative Council an appointed, rubber-stamp body. But at
least the colonial bureaucrats left the territory or lived quietly,
rather than joining the likes of Jardines or Swire. Hong Kong, meanwhile,
has grown up and expects a more accountable administration. The ICAC
has a key role to play now, as when it took on syndicated corruption
in the police in 1974. Get on with it.
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