Restoring public confidence in ICAC

Undermined by a spate of scandals, the ICAC spares no expense in rebuilding its image and restoring trust among the public on its 40th anniversary.

With an $8 million budget for its promotional TV drama series, the first episode of which was premiered at the annual international film festival, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is trying to restore its image as a competent graft buster.

In celebrating its 40th anniversary, the anti-graft commission collaborated with Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) to showcase a selection of ICAC’s TV dramas on its past investigations, including the newly launched ICAC Investigators — Better Tomorrow. This was also the first time that the festival feted a local organization rather than a filmmaker, an actor or an actress.

The higher spending on image building and promotion followed a drop in public trust in the commission as a result of a spate of scandals involving the commission. But despite the high cost, still a question lingers: 40 years old today, with all its successes and scandals, will the commission manage to restore public confidence in its efficacy?

Before the ICAC was established in 1974, corruption was rampant in Hong Kong, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, when the city experienced great social changes as a result of massive population growth and rapid economic development.

In 1973, the investigation into Peter Fitzroy Godber, a chief police superintendent who managed to escape with unearned wealth obtained from corruption, triggered formation of the commission.

Since then, the ICAC has largely transformed the city by fighting corruption, making it one of the most graft-free jurisdictions in Asia. For its good work, the commission has been credited for being a key driving force that helped to transform Hong Kong into an international financial center in the 1980s and 1990s.

Additionally, the commission was also credited with the city’s economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s for having propelled the more honest city towards an international economic center.

However, last year’s scandal involving Timothy Tong Hin-ming, former head of the ICAC who spent huge sums of public money on receptions, gift-giving and entertainment during his tenure, has largely undermined public confidence in the commission as a graft-buster.

Speaking in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor said that the scandal “undermined the ICAC’s image and Hong Kong’s reputation … both locally and overseas, and has shaken people’s confidence in the ICAC”.

The scandal not only cast shadow on the commission, but also posed challenges to the city’s core values, including the rule of law, transparent government and freedom of speech. It was also believed to be responsible for a 32.5 percent decrease in corruption complaints in 2013, the greatest drop ever.

In announcing the drop, ICAC commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu also said that “individual incidents” during the year had damaged the agency’s reputation without referring to any specific name, according to the South China Morning Post.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s ranking in the latest corruption perception index of 2013 dropped to 15, the lowest in the last seven years, according to Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption.

But has the ICAC really lost it authority and determination in fighting corruptions?

In his book Curbing corruption in Asian countries: An Impossible Dream?, Jon S.T. Quah, an expert on political science and corruption, observed that it was not impossible to eradicate graft in Asian countries, as shown by successes in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Besides, Bryane Michael, a senior fellow with Hong Kong University’s law faculty, also said that the ICAC had set a good example for fighting corruption on the mainland in his paper Can the Hong Kong ICAC Help Reduce Corruption on the Mainland? published in 2013.

Compared with the anti-corruption campaigns on the mainland under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, described by many foreign media as “hollow” and “unserious” with the primary purpose to “consolidate power”, Hong Kong is surely far ahead in combating corruption because of the ICAC.

However, created by scandal, undermined by scandal, it is still under the shadows cast by scandals. Thus, despite the huge expense in image building, the commission still has a long way to go in retrieving confidence and rebuilding trust among the public.

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