Fighting Corruption — the Hong Kong way

By Eric Collins

Tony Kwok Man-wai, SBS, IDS, JP worked for 27 years at the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) where he served as Deputy Commissioner and Head of Operations from 1996 to 2002. He now works as an international anticorruption specialist, and has travelled to 25 countries on a total of 200+ missions. Tony Kwok is a College of Business alumnus and holds an MBA from CityU.

Tony Kwok Man-wai

I f you are a Hong Kong Senior Citizen, you may just remember the bad old days of "tea money". In 1970s Hong Kong, if you wanted a bedpan in a hospital, what did you do? A new phone line installed? Firefighters to show up if there was a blaze? The answer was always the same: "tea money". Corruption was a way of life.

As Tony Kwok puts it: "Hong Kong, as a British colony, was definitely one of the most corrupt places on earth. There was a saying that corruption existed from womb to tomb".

The former Deputy Commissioner and Head of Operations of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the city's anti-corruption agency, knows the ground better than most.

"As a taxi-driver, you could even buy a monthly label to stick on your taxi and it would guarantee you against traffic prosecutions."

"Police corruption was syndicated. Nearly all types of organised crimes, vice, gambling and drugs, were protected."

The tipping point came with the infamous Godber case. As Chief Superintendent of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force in Kowloon, Peter Godber was embroiled in a bribery scandal shortly before his retirement in 1973. He used his special police pass to slip past immigration and fled to the United Kingdom. Justice was seen to be done when Godber was extradited back to Hong Kong and subsequently sentenced to four years in prison.

"I" for Independent

The establishment of the ICAC – with an emphasis on the "I" for Independent – was a direct result of the Godber graft case. And forty years on, Hong Kong has won the accolade of being one of the cleanest of metropolises.

"Our success in containing corruption, has won a global brand status unique to Hong Kong," says Kwok.

And this is reflected in international rankings: Political and Risk Consultancy Limited rates Hong Kong as the second cleanest place to do business in Asia, whilst the Transparency International corruption perception index ranked Hong Kong 18th cleanest of 167 countries in 2015.

"When the ICAC was set up, very few people in Hong Kong believed that it would be successful. Within 3 years, we smashed all corruption syndicates in the government and prosecuted 247 government officers, including 143 police officers. Amongst these were some labelled as billion-dollar Station Sergeants, although a few had managed to escape and are still hiding in Taiwan."

"I should add that since then, the police have started their own reforms, and now the Hong Kong Police is recognised as one of the most efficient and cleanest forces in the world."

A hotbed of prostitution, gambling, and drug use, Kowloon Walled City was a densely populated, largely ungoverned settlement which was demolished in 1994
© Heather Coulson


Kwok joined the ICAC shortly after its inception in 1975, and participated in the successful battle to transform Hong Kong from a most corrupt place to one of the world's cleanest cities. He retired as the first local Deputy Commissioner and Head of Operations in 2002, after having successfully led the Commission through the smooth transition of sovereignty from British Colony to China in 1997 despite international pessimism.

In 1986, Kwok led a joint ICAC/Police Task Force with 30 officers to investigate the collapse of the third largest local bank in Hong Kong, which involved corruption and fraud resulting in a loss of HK$3 billion. This investigation was successfully concluded in 16 months, resulting in five convictions, including the three top management positions of the bank, and two persons were extradited from the United States.

The case also acted as catalyst in the formation of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, paving the way to enable Hong Kong to become the third largest financial centre in the world. Tony Kwok was subsequently awarded a Governor Commendation for his leadership and professional ability.

The recent conviction of a property tycoon accused of bribing the city's former No. 2 government official shows that the ICAC lost none of its zeal after the return of sovereignty, and sent a signal that nobody is beyond reach.

Tony Kwok, the first local Deputy Commissioner & Head of Operations of ICAC in 1996

Lessons for China?

The ICAC's successful experience serves as a model for mainland China, which largely follows the ICAC three-pronged strategy of deterrence, prevention and education. But there is a difference. As Kwok puts it, "In China, the party and government are inseparable, hence there are a number of party and government organisations responsible for anti-corruption, as well as at different levels – national, provincial, city and rural. It would be ideal if there were one single national anti-corruption agency directly answerable to the central government which could avoid any undue local influence."

Kwok is optimistic that despite these obstacles, President Xi's campaign could work because he has demonstrated a strong political will and has made corruption recognised in China as a high risk crime.

Life after ICAC

Since his retirement in 2002, Tony Kwok has been invited to 25 countries and numerous provinces in China to provide professional anti-corruption consultancy, lectures, and to conduct anti-corruption seminars and workshops. He has taken up a number of anti-corruption projects with the United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Commission, The Asia Foundation, to name but a few. He has also assisted a number of countries to set up their new anticorruption agencies, including Mongolia, Cambodia, Serbia, Mauritius and Timor-Leste.

Many countries Kwok has visited are plagued with serious corruption. They greatly admire Hong Kong's success and they have largely followed the ICAC model, although how effective they can be largely depends on the top political will of their country leaders.

"Very often they expressed bewilderment to me when they saw public protests and demonstrations taking place regularly in Hong Kong," Kwok said, "For them, Hong Kong is heaven and yet Hong Kong people seem unable to realise how fortunate they are!"

Tony Kwok interviewed by TVB at the scene of a car smuggling case

Life Long Learning

Tony Kwok is a firm believer in life long learning, and obtained a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at CityU at the age of 40.

"The programme was very practical and I found there were many points of intersection with my work life. Inspired by the programme, I initiated an annual strategic planning workshop in the ICAC for brainstorming and published a five-year action plan." He has also attended a number of residential police management courses in the UK, including the prestigious six-month Senior Command Course at the Police Staff College, as well as a six-week China Studies Course at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Kwok has extended his work to educational course design, and assisted HKU SPACE in designing the world's first International Postgraduate Certificate in Corruption Studies where he is the Adjunct Professor and Honorary Programme Director. He received the Outstanding Teacher Award from the University in 2006. In 2010, he launched a pilot course with the University called Senior Executive Certificate Course on Institutional Integrity Management which attracted participants from both the public and business sectors. It is his wish that all institutions in Hong Kong, whether government or private, should have a sound institutional integrity management in place to ensure their houses are clean.

Even at the age of 69, he is attending philosophy class at the Elder Academy in CityU SCOPE, and is fond of quoting Henry Ford:

"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young."

Hong Kong's advantage

Today, it is no exaggeration to say that the ICAC is an integral part of Brand Hong Kong. When visiting dignitaries come to town, the ICAC is firmly on the tour schedule.

A celebrated stop on the ICAC tour is the in-house museum. Here you can find dioramas of markets with different coloured lights for brothels, gambling dens and opium parlours. And there is one key exhibit: a copy of the notebook which former police chief Godber used to keep detailed records, including maps and dates, of all the bribes he collected from criminals.

Despite its success, in recent news the Commission finds its independence questioned. Tony Kwok is, however, adamant that allegations of political interference at ICAC are unfounded, as there is in place a very effective system of checks and balances with independent committees monitoring all aspects of ICAC work.

The life work of public servants such as Tony Kwok has ensured that Hong Kong's public services are generally beyond reproach, and work to the highest levels of international transparency. Long may that legacy continue.