Side Views

Corruption, amnesty and the Hong Kong way — Yow Hong Chieh

JAN 16 — Popular reception of Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan’s proposal to grant amnesty in minor corruption cases but not major ones has been mixed, at least judging from the comments which were quick to follow.

The more puritanical among us have said all graft is the same, whether big or small, and that we should prosecute every last government officer who has ever taken an illicit sen to send a message that corruption will not be tolerated.

Many who profess this school of thought are driven by the belief that corruption runs rampant through the civil service, courtesy of the culture of impunity fostered by Barisan Nasional (BN).

Yet it goes to reason that if corruption is as widespread as claimed, the wheels of government would grind to a halt if every civil servant who followed through with the words, “Macam mana mau settle?” were to be hauled up for prosecution.

Bear in mind the conversation my friend had with a junior government officer who said: “If Pakatan does this, we will all go to jail.”

Hong Kong faced the same problem in the 1960s and 1970s, when corruption in the police force was so rampant that even British officers — said to be immune to this uniquely Chinese disease — were on the take.

So powerful and fearful were the police then that they were even able to lay blame for a series of riots in the mid-60s, which was marked by bombs and violence, at the door of prominent anti-corruption campaigners who had vexed them.

Matters only came to a head when Kowloon deputy district commissioner Peter Godber, who had been found guilty of squirrelling away over US$500,000 (RM1.55 million), escaped punishment by flying back to the Britain. (He was later extradited.)

The public uproar that ensued forced the colonial government to establish in 1974 the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which our own Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has failed miserably to emulate.

But the story doesn’t end there. One of the first things the ICAC did was to go after the very institution which had brought about its creation; the anti-graft body went on a spree of arrests to show that it meant business.

The police responded by besieging ICAC headquarters in the thousands.

A tense stand-off ensued, during which time it dawned on the government that if it took action against all corrupt coppers, it would eventually be forced to call in the military to uphold basic order.

This realisation culminated in the partial amnesty offer for all offences committed before January 1, 1977. As Sir Murray MacLehose, who was Hong Kong Governor at the time, put it:

“It would have been feasible to go on prosecuting people for offences committed long ago, but the risk of such prosecutions had resulted in an alliance between the formerly corrupt and the presently corrupt which was at the heart of the near mutiny of the police.

“The amnesty split off these two rather different elements and simplified the ICAC’s ability to press on with the prosecution of current corruption.”

Despite a rough first two years following the amnesty offer, which seriously hurt the credibility of the ICAC in the eyes of the public, Hong Kong has come far and is now seen as one of the least corrupt nations in the world.

What does the city-state’s experience tell us? Simply this: once corruption has seeped into the very marrow of public service, we can only stand to lose if we stick doggedly to idealistic, punitive responses.

So while we might find ourselves stuck chest-deep in a quagmire of corruption, it doesn’t pay to fight quicksand. We can only lose such a battle.

Our time would be better spent on leaving the mess behind as quickly and smoothly as possible so we may find firmer ground on which to build a better tomorrow.

* Yow Hong Chieh is a reporter with The Malaysian Insider.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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