Our special correspondent looks at how a celebrated corruption scandal led to the creation of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption – and what lessons it might hold for its Malaysian counterpart.
“It’s the start of another long, hot summer and already it stinks. … It’s the stink of corruption, and it’s getting so strong even the locals are talking about it. It’s time for a cleanup.”
This quote is from the China Mail, Hong Kong, 1973.
A generation later, in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Hong Kong is rated 15th best worldwide out of 176 countries. It has an effectiveness score of 77 per cent, meaning it is perceived as being more effective in combating corruption than the US (74 per cent), and Japan (72 per cent).
Earlier this month, Transparency International published a special report titled “People and Corruption: Asia Pacific”. From that report, page 17, the percentage of those interviewed who had paid a bribe when accessing basic services in Hong Kong was 2 per cent and in Australia 4 per cent (Malaysia, 23 per cent).
How did Hong Kong transform itself from being regarded as corruptly “stinking” a generation ago to being judged “cleaner” today than three of the world’s most advanced nations? Many suggest it was Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
The curious case of the crooked cop
Are there lessons Malaysia might take from this? How, for example, did the ICAC start?
The spark that ignited the flame that created the ICAC in Hong Kong came not from Hong Kong, nor from London. It came from Canada.
In April 1973 the Royal Bank of Canada made an enquiry to the British Foreign Office in London concerning a Hong Kong-based British diplomat living who had a sizeable account with the bank.
The Foreign Office had no record of the individual in the diplomatic list; so it referred the matter to Hong Kong. Government Secretariat referred it to the police commissioner.
The commissioner, perhaps to his horror, recognised the name. Peter Godber was a Chief Superintendent, second in command of Kowloon District. How did Godber have so much money?
The law as it then stood (it has since been changed) insisted that, as there was no direct evidence to prove a specific instance of corruption against Godber, the commissioner could only rely on a provision in the new Prevention of Corruption Ordinance, which had come into effect two years previously on 14 May 1971.
Within that legislation was a section that made being in control of “pecuniary resources or property disproportionate to the officer’s official emoluments [meaning, his regular salary and allowances]” constituted an offence.
But the law also required that the accused first be given a chance to explain to the attorney general how the situation arose. Until the attorney general decided whether or not he accepted the explanation, there was no offence.
Godber was issued the attorney general’s letter – which gave him a week to explain – by the commissioner of police in police headquarters on 4 June 1973. And promptly fainted.
As the letter was handed over, a search warrant was executed on Godber’s government apartment. Careful notes in Godber’s hand revealed further bank accounts, from which it was established that he controlled assets well in excess of his entire government salary since joining the force. (Despite this, because of the law at the time, the week for explanation had to run its course.)
Escape sparks public outcry
On 8 June, 11.27am, four days into his week for explanation, Godber paid cash for an air ticket to Singapore at a commercial travel agent in Star House, Tsim Sha Tsui. (No internet in those days.)
In the early afternoon the same day he presented his ticket at the airline check-in desk at Kai Tak Airport, Kowloon City – Hong Kong’s airport then. He received his boarding card.
At this stage, perhaps, Godber may have guessed that his name would be on the immigration stop list. (It was.) But as second in command of the police district in which Kai Tak airport was situated, he was already in possession of a closed area pass to enter the airport restricted area. This enabled him to avoid immigration control.
Once inside the international departure lounge, he boarded the plane in the normal manner. He already had his boarding card – first class.
When the story of Godber’s ‘escape’ broke, civic leaders were incensed, the public were outraged, and the press had a field day. Not merely was this corruption involving a senior police officer, but Godber was British, and Hong Kong was then a British colony!
Commission of inquiry set up
How could this have happened? Had there been collusion? At the very highest level? The colonial government was under siege!
The Governor, Sir Murray MacLehose (as he was then, later Lord MacLehose) acted immediately. Sir Alastair Blair-Kerr, a Senior Puisne Judge, was appointed to form a commission of inquiry.
It was tasked with establishing, within three weeks, how Godber had managed to leave the colony, and within three months, report on the effectiveness of the law and “suggest any other changes in current arrangements considered necessary”.
This final objective – to “suggest any other changes in current arrangements considered necessary” – became, for the commission of inquiry and Hong Kong as a whole, the question of whether responsibility for the war against corruption should remain a part of government or become an entirely independent body.
The commission sought opinions from a wide spectrum of government, NGOs, and the public. In the final report (para 237) their findings are summed up in the following terms:
Responsible bodies generally feel that the public will never be convinced that the Government really intends to fight corruption unless the Anti Corruption Office is separated from the Police.” [At the time, it was part of the police.]
Public perceptions crucial
Blair-Kerr observed that an important consideration was that there appeared to be a widespread loss of confidence in the ability of the police to investigate corruption with impartiality and zeal.
Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils (Umelco), as the non governmental “people’s representatives” were then known, remarked that “although this belief may not be justified – indeed may be very unfair to the Police – no amount of assurance is likely to convince the public otherwise”.
Derek Davies, the then Far Eastern Economic Review editor, wrote, “… so long as such a feeling exists, it is immaterial to argue whether it is justified or not.”
In other words, the question was not whether an independent body could do a better job of combating corruption than the Police Anti Corruption Branch; it was whether the public believed it could. This point is key.
In the fight against corruption, corruption itself becomes almost irrelevant. How much corruption exists in reality is far less important than what the public thinks exists, and how much confidence the public have in the government’s efforts to fight it.
This is recognised in the CPI index – ‘P’ stands for the generally held perceptions. This feeds directly into what best deters crime: the likelihood of being caught.
If the enforcers of the anti-corruption laws are perceived to be effective, and the government’s determination to eliminate corruption is deemed to be genuine, then the perception will be favourable, and the deterrence effect will be high.
If few are believed to be corrupt, and there is a strong social stigma attached to being shown to be corrupt, then solicitations will be fewer, offers will be fewer, fear of getting caught will be stronger, and the social approval of government is enhanced.
Independence is key
In the wake of Godber’s disappearance, and the Blair-Kerr reports, MacLehose became a staunch advocate of total independence of anti-corruption efforts. In his speech to the Legislative Council in October 1973, he stated this in the following terms:
… the situation calls for an organisation, led by men of high rank and status, which can devote its whole time to the eradication of this evil.
A further and conclusive argument is that public confidence is very much involved. Clearly the public would have more confidence in a unit that is entirely independent, and separated from any department of the Government, including the Police.
It is perhaps important to note it was not just the police he wished it separated from; it was “any department of government”.
Hong Kong sensed the wind of change. The public saw this as government setting the stage for the birth of an effective anti-corruption regime.
Effective, because it was clearly going to be independent, and every bit as importantly, be seen to be independent. [The entire debate related to the independence of Hong Kong’s anti-corruption agency is detailed in paras 218 to 239 and is available online.]
How independent is MACC?
Malaysia does not have its Peter Godber incident to mobilise public opinion, but it does have the People and Corruption: Asia Pacific Report. In the section, “Is the Government Doing Well or Badly in Fighting Corruption?” [page 11], Malaysia is regarded, by its own population, as the second worst of the 15 countries studied.
The majority of respondents in Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Myanmar all felt their government was doing well in the fight against corruption. Almost two thirds of Malaysians (62 per cent), however, felt the government was not doing well.
This statistic is difficult to ignore. From the viewpoint of the public, does it make Malaysia today much different from Hong Kong in 1973?
One could of course dismiss the report – and its findings – in its entirety. But might a more enlightened approach not be to give the report the benefit of the doubt? Act now to follow a course already shown in Hong Kong to be effective – or wait for Malaysia’s Godber?
The only question left, might be: was MacLehose right when he said, “Clearly the public would have more confidence in a unit that is entirely independent, and separated from any department of the Government …”
History and statistics suggest that he was.
As recently as 14 March 2017, a report in the Star read:
The MACC has no grounds to investigate PAS over allegations that the party had received RM90 million from certain parties…
This statement in a parliamentary written reply, did not come from a clearly independent Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. It came from a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.
Such hierarchical pronouncements, however administratively convenient, tend to negate any claim to the independence of the MACC.
In early 1975, Godber was extradited from England to stand trial. The charges were a conspiracy offence and one of accepting bribes. Godber was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.