Public Forum: Assault on the ICAC and the Rule of Law? - Opening remarks by the Chairman (Mr TL Tsim)

Public Forum: Assault on the ICAC and the Rule of Law? (13 Aug 2016)

Mr TL Tsim - The Chairman's Opening remarks

Good Afternoon, Ladies & Gentlemen!

Welcome to the public forum jointly sponsored by Project Citizens Foundation and Hong Kong 2020.

We have four distinguished speakers today: Mrs. Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong SAR Government, Mr. Bertrand de Speville, former ICAC Commissioner, Mr. Joseph Wong, former Secretary of the Civil Service, and Dr Margaret Ng, former Legislative Councillor.

I’d like to thank them all for their attendance today and for their willingness to speak on a subject close to our hearts: i.e. Hong Kong’s anti corruption agency, the ICAC, and Hong Kong’s rule of law. I salute their public spirit and their courage to speak out. Many people purport to “serve Hong Kong” but when the chips are down prefer to hide their faces behind multifarious excuses. You know who these people are; I don’t need to elaborate.

All four speakers today “formerly” held office; they are not active, political figures any more. Unlike politicians in democratic countries in the West, most Hong Kong serving politicians, especially unelected ones, do not seem to see the need to explain themselves before the public. In Hong Kong, those people who have power can wield that power with scant regard for public opinion or even public interest. One can only hope that the Legislative Council election on 4th September will give them a rude awakening.

In today’s Hong Kong, when many media organizations no longer report the really important news any more, when newspapers no longer want to publish the views and opinions which "the powers that be" do not wish to hear, public forums of this kind which draw attention to current affairs of major import, shed light on the subject matters and disseminate the contents of public discussion through the internet are at least one way of holding back our community from becoming a slave to authority, and unelected authority at that.

Today, we as organizers are really gratified to see so many people spare their weekend to take part in  what we regard as a very important Public Forum, because the subject matter is “Assault on the ICAC and the Rule of Law?”

The Independent Commission Against Corruption was established in 1974 by the then government to fight corruption in Hong Kong. Its Chinese name does not reflect sufficiently the importance of the word “independent” in the nomenclature. The English word “corruption” also means much more than just “graft” and extends to cover dereliction of duties and abuses of office. It is not just about clean government but also good governance.

In the last 42 years since the ICAC’s establishment, successive generations of ICAC staff have carried out their work with due diligence and integrity and have, in the process, won the respect of the Hong Kong people. Most of us believe it can operate independently of the executive branch of the Hong Kong Government and can withstand the political pressure emanating there from. The ICAC has the public’s high esteem and support. Of that, the officers of the ICAC can be justly proud. In Hong Kong, we are re-assured by the fact that we have an institution like the ICAC to guard against corruption.

A corruption free community, laws that the international financial institutions can rely upon and a government which they can trust are requisites of an international financial centre. It is perhaps no accident that the establishment of the ICAC and Hong Kong’s take-off as an international financial centre occurred at about the same time in our history.

In these last few weeks, the ICAC has witnessed unprecedented and multiple personnel changes involving four senior officers, viz. Rebecca Li, Dale Ko, MelissaTang and Ricky Yau. If you are telling us these are simply regular personnel changes, you would be insulting our intelligence. Hong Kong has not seen anything like this in the 42 years of the ICAC’s existence. Thus far, already two out of three Chief Executives of the HKSAR Government since the handover have been investigated by the ICAC. If you are telling us this is not a problem and that this was simply the work of the troublesome pan Democrats and an over-zealous mass media, you would also be insulting our intelligence. There are two issues here. The first is the relationship between the CE and the ICAC Commissioner and the second is whether the ICAC is being turned into a "toothless tiger" on the one hand and an "instrument of political oppression" on the other, powerless to investigate the CE and his lot but ferocious in dealing with their political enemies.

Hong Kong under British rule was a well governed city, because the British administrators understood that they had to be “whiter than white”. Chinese culture requires Chinese leaders to “set a good example”. But the British have gone further in wanting people in power to be “whiter than white”. A Commissioner who did not measure up, would have failed in doing his job.

Hong Kong used to be a peaceful, rational, vibrant and caring city. Why have we turned out this way? The answer is that we have not followed “Two Systems” closely enough. Hong Kong has, instead, gone in the wrong direction, followed the wrong policies and appointed the wrong people to important public offices.

It is now almost 20 years since our transition to Chinese sovereignty, and so much has changed.

  1. What was a city ordered by the rule of law has given way to the rule of man. The whims of one person can now over-ride the laws, rules and regulations and proper procedures of old. Absolute obedience is now the creed, and dire consequences to the health of the community be damned.
  2. What used to be a government which respected public opinion has become a government which ignores it and rides roughshod over it.
  3. What used to be a peaceful and rational community has become one that is torn apart by violence and continuous confrontation.
  4. What used to be an efficient, self-directed and disciplined civil service has become a  distressed political tool.
  5. What used to be free and autonomous universities worthy of their names have become so intimidated that they would not even dare come out and defend “critical and independent thinking”.
  6. What used to pro active and upright mass media organizations have become easily manipulated instruments of the government.

Jaspar Tsang, President of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council asked the perfect rhetorical question when he said. “And who is responsible for this state of affairs?” The only answer to such a clever question can only be this famous line in the TV series The House of Cards - “You may think this, but I cannot possibly comment.”

In 2012, the former Chief Justice Andrew Li headed an independent commission which looked into “Potential Conflicts of Interests”. The Commission made 36 recommendations, one of which was that the Chief Executive of the HKSAR should come under and be bound by Article 3 of The Prevention of Bribery Ordinance, just like all civil servants and ministers. Mr. Li pointed out that it would be “totally inappropriate” for the CE to decide for himself whether he could accept an advantage; he further pointed out that “the CE should not be above the law”. The then CE Elect Mr. C Y Leung had welcomed these recommendations and had said he would consider them seriously and implement them as soon as possible.

Now four years have passed and there has been no sign that this will come to pass. If Mr. Leung would introduce a bill to give effect to those recommendations, I am convinced there will be a quorum in Legco to scrutinize the bill, there will not be any filibustering, and the amendments to the legislation will be passed with an overwhelming majority.  What's more, these changes will be very popular and will be welcome by all and sundry, especially by Mr Leung’s former supporter now turned adversary - Mr. Dreambear.

But, why has this not been done? Of course, no one wants possibly to comment.

The mistakes that have been made in the past twenty years have been made top down, not bottom up. But what can the staff of the ICAC do in the face of such an adverse political environment? The organization can only function if it has the confidence of the public and high staff morale. If the ICAC loses credibility and staff support and becomes merely an instrument of oppression, it won’t have much real work to do from here on and might as well pack up and go and hunt Pokemon Go.

There have been three CEs since 1997, two of them have been investigated by the ICAC. When “The Prevention of Bribery Ordinance” was written, no doubt this state of affairs was never envisaged. Hong Kong really needs a Chief Executive that has integrity, credibility and the support of the Hong Kong people. His roles and powers also need to be further defined and bound by the rule of law. The universities are looking into this now. ICAC must do the same. Let us hope that the leaders in Beijing finally understand the importance of that now.

With these words, I would like to give the floor to our first speaker, Mrs. Anson Chan, who will be speaking to us about “ICAC: We Must Keep Our Advantage”.