A Sad Day

I wonder if the former ICAC Commissioner Timothy Tong realises just how much damage he has done to the anti graft body that he was appointed to defend and protect.

No doubt he is beginning to understand the danger to himself. After all, he is now the subject of a criminal investigation by his former colleagues, some of whom are undoubtedly angry at the way their own image has been tarnished by association.

But judging from the mindset that led him to behave as he did, it is possible he does not fully grasp the consequences for the Commission itself.

From the facts that have been made public so far, from the Audit Report and from replies to media enquiries, Tong entertained mainland officials lavishly on a number of occasions and also gave some of them expensive gifts. The justification for the frequency, and the identity of the guests, has been challenged. The fact that these favours were paid for from public funds has caused outrage.

But that is surely not the main point. If, as some have speculated, the favours were granted in order to secure a future benefit for the individual concerned, then the source of the funding is at most an aggravating factor.

Even if Tong had paid for the meals and gifts from his own pocket, then he could be said to have sailed very close to actual corruption. At the very least, he must be given an opportunity to respond to these allegations, to clear the air.

One of the deepest fears of Hong Kong people in the run-up to 1997, and since, is that our city would be dragged back into the dark days of corruption by closer interaction with the mainland. We put this nightmare behind us in the 1970s and we don’t want it back.

I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that the ICAC, which we saw as the first line of defence, could turn out to be the weak link.

So the first consequence of this saga is a loss of confidence by the public in the integrity of the ICAC.

There are other losses less readily visible.

Disciplined services, and those who work in them, are a special breed. Our firemen run into burning buildings while everyone else is trying to get out of them. A young police constable walking the beat at night will go down a dark alley if he hears a cry for help, while ordinary citizens might turn away or pretend not to hear.

Our ICAC officers are of a similar ilk and set themselves very high standards. From the earliest days, they have been subject to a degree of social ostracism.

To generate and maintain this courage, this internal fortitude, the organisations concerned need to build up staff morale. Working closely together in tough circumstances binds the people together. Like the Three Musketeers, it’s a case of All for One and One for All.

Suddenly finding out that your leader has feet of clay has a devastating impact.

The fact that harmony has been disturbed is evidenced by the other tales emerging about the Tong era. Allegedly turning up for work late, then using office facilities to prepare Chinese herbs, bringing a girlfriend and a golfing buddy to official events, all this tittle tattle might not amount to much except for its source: it must have come from within the ICAC, so the solidarity is broken.

And how is all this going to look to the new administration in Beijing with its emphasis on fighting corruption and frugality in official entertainment?

Finally, the revelations have put our Chief Executive C Y Leung on the spot. Tong had been appointed by his predecessor of course, so that responsibility cannot be laid at Leung’s door. But what comes next? Surely the best thing now would be to bring maximum sunlight to bear on the situation.

Unless the ICAC investigation turns up evidence to justify prosecution – in which case Tong must be presumed innocent pending the outcome of the trial – then there must be some kind of enquiry held in public. That is the only way to restore public confidence in the ICAC, restore harmony within it, and provide an opportunity for the former Commissioner to explain his side of the story.

If we act now wisely and fairly, and are seen to do so, then maybe some good can come even from this situation. But up to now it’s a pretty sad day.