Anyone arriving in Hong Kong today will find a city virtually free from corruption. It is hard to imagine that only a few decades ago citizens were accustomed to paying bribes to everyone from the police to hospital workers.
This turnaround can be credited to the founding of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 1974, which within a few years had successfully carried out a programme of root-and-branch reform as well as a number of high-profile prosecutions.
As Simon Peh, Commissioner of the ICAC, explained, it was not a case of just a few rouge miscreants.
“In the 1960s the problem was part of daily life. The greatest problem was the syndicated corruption, especially in the government departments.”
Within 10 years, this syndicated corruption had been eliminated. The situation continued to improve and in the past 20 years or so, the city has largely been free of such corruption. Remaining this way takes work, however, and “we have to be very alert against any possible regression,” Peh said.
Over the past 40 years the ICAC has successfully employed a three-prong approach: enforcement, education and prevention. Many other countries focus on enforcement, but Hong Kong employs a broader approach.
“You get an immediate effect when you enforce the law,” he said. “But in the long term, the real benefits of education and prevention emerge.”
Hong Kong’s cleaning up also coincided with the evolution of the city into a global financial hub.
“Gradually Hong Kong moved forward to become a financial centre; I think it was a natural process,” Peh said. “But that said, being corruption-free is a very important factor in enabling Hong Kong to become a financial centre. Because the overseas investors, the big banks and investment banks, could move away very easily.”
The ICAC’s focus has shifted from government departments to the private sector, and now needs to look far beyond Hong Kong.
“Under globalization now it is much easier for people to move around the world, for money to move around the world, for transactions to go beyond our borders,” Peh said. “So we need to cooperate with agencies in other countries. Actually we have very good cooperation with our counterparts – the police, the anti-corruption agencies – in all parts of the world.”
Prevention is now a key part of the ICAC’s role and it works with the private and public sector in different ways.
“For government departments and public bodies, we are the authority under the law to check their procedures, check their systems to ensure there is no corruption.”
In the private sector, however, they do not have the same authority. So to enhance the services, in the mid 1990s the ICAC set up the Hong Kong Business Ethics Development Centre.
“This has been very effective,” Peh said. “The companies can come to us for advice or for assignment. For example, a company may have a problem in its purchasing department, so we can look into the purchasing system and give them advice.”
The ICAC also produces a range of industry-specific toolkits – for example for the catering sector, where the practice of taking kickbacks when purchasing foodstuffs has not been entirely eradicated. Other sectors that have experienced issues in recent years include construction and insurance.
“For example we have some problems with fake policies, or maybe the unlawful referral of clients to other insurance companies,” he explained.
The growth of the internet, advanced IT and social media have changed the way the ICAC works.
“These are all new challenges for us,” Peh said. “So some years ago we set up the computer forensics unit and they deal with computers, laptops and mobile phones. They have the knowledge to dig into the equipment to look for any useful evidence.”
Another specialized branch is the Forensic Accounting Group, which focuses on the most complicated cases, often involving listed companies and international transactions.
The ICAC has about 1,400 staff members, with around 1,000 of these on the investigations side. The commission also has a Community Relations Department which has a wide portfolio including education. Teaching Hong Kong citizens about corruption starts in kindergarten and continues right up to university level. Instruction is also offered to the working population, particularly government employees.
“Education for government officers – which is one of the most important parts of our education – has been kept at a very high level. Every year, we provide training to around 20,000 to 30,000 government officers.”
For the private sector, the ICAC’s work includes offering sector-specific seminars and departmental briefings – and such services are available free of charge.
Peh noted that the younger generation has been more difficult to teach about the issue.
“Young people, in the last 10 or 20 years, have no personal experience of corruption,” he said. “They don’t understand, so when we tell them about the evils of corruption it may not be easy for them to appreciate or absorb.”
Getting its message across today is very different to even a few years ago, when the ICAC could depend on the wide reach of traditional media.
“In the past we may have had a one-hour TV programme focusing on a case. Now we have a 30-second story on social media. So this is a very big change and new challenge.”
The ICAC also looks at major projects in Hong Kong, such as the new airport runway.
“That will spend a lot of public money, and the West Kowloon development will also spend a lot of public money,” he said. “We give them advice at an early stage of the development to make sure there is no corruption. We don’t want to see any scandal related to corruption appearing in the newspapers.”
Hong Kong’s success in keeping corruption at bay is borne out by its high position in a variety of rankings tables. In the most recent survey from Transparency International, Hong Kong ranks at 13 out of 180 countries. Since the survey was launched in 1995, Hong Kong has always been comfortably within the top 20, and has improved its rank in the past few years. Singapore and Japan are the only other Asian jurisdictions in the current top 20.
Hong Kong can certainly claim to have a culture of zero tolerance for any types of corruption. This is borne out by independent surveys, which show that 97% of the population supports the work of the ICAC. “I would say this is the best and the strongest defence against corruption,” Peh said. “The culture – not the enforcement.”
A new development for the ICAC has seen it seeking to strengthen cooperation by sharing its experience outside Hong Kong. Peh shared that he had secured additional funding from the government to establish a new unit that will offer training to other anti-corruption agencies around the world, particularly the Belt and Road countries.
The first country to benefit is Timor-Leste. Following decades of conflict, it became independent from Indonesia in the early years of this century. Despite this rocky beginning, Timor-Leste does not score particularly badly on the Transparency International index, ranking at 91. But this still leaves room for improvement, and Hong Kong is ready to help.
Last year, a number of ICAC officers went to Timor-Leste to assess the situation on the ground, to enable the commission to create a tailor-made training programme to be used by officials.
“Because Hong Kong is doing so well,” Peh said, “we should share our experience and our knowledge with other anti-corruption agencies around the world.”