Eradicating the culture of corruption need not take decades



Tony Kwok Man-wai:

MUCH of his life has been spent in fighting corruption. In fact, even after retiring from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)—the Hong Kong Corruption Eradication Commission—Professor Tony Kwok Man-wai remains very much involved in the battle against corruption. He is now a consultant in 21 countries, regularly delivering lectures on corruption, including in Indonesia.

Professor Kwok joined the ICAC in 1975, one year after it was founded by the then British government in Hong Kong, with a mandate to  battle and prevent corruption, and carry out an anticorruption education campaign. Kwok retired when he was deputy commissioner and operations chief in 2002. That year, he was appointed Director of Corruption Studies Program at Hong Kong University, the first such academic program in the world.

Other countries, including Indonesia, regard the ICAC as a model commission in how to eradicate corruption. Because of the ICAC, Hong Kong succeeded in changing its culture of corruption in all the layers of its society. Once riddled with corruption, Hong Kong became the 13th cleanest state in the world, way ahead of Indonesia, which never seems to go under its 100 or so ranking. “If you want to change the culture, never tolerate bribery, no matter how small,” said Kwok.

During a public lecture on August 11 in Jakarta, Kwok said the battle against corruption need not take decades. The key, he said, was in the right strategy and in the people’s political will, and that there was no single solution to eradicating corruption except to have all economic and social sectors participate. The solution to corruption does not depend on just one institution.

Before the lecture, Kwok spoke at the Integrated Anti-Corruption Workshop in Semarang. Some of the participants were mid-level police officers and under. At the end of the session, one of them came to him and said: “Professor Kwok, I agree with everything you said, but you should be talking with my boss.”  Kwok said that ultimately, eradicating corruption depended on the leader. That is why, it is important to have political will, regulations, a proper budget, certainty and independence, so that the anticorruption commission is free from any political interest.

Right after the lecture Kwok flew back to Hong Kong. On the way to the airport, Kwok spoke to Tempo reporters Yandi M. Rofiyandi and Yophiandi Kurniawan. Excerpts of the interview:

You seem quite convinced that eradicating corruption will not take decades.
Hong Kong, which used to be very corrupt, only took more than three years to change the people’s culture of corruption. This is the main message. People always consider the effort of changing the culture of corruption as taking a long time, in fact, generations. Apparently, this is wrong. In three years’ time, we were able to stop the syndication of corruption. Perhaps we still have individual corruption, but for sure there was a change of culture during those three years. Here, however, what is needed is political will.

What was the most evident change in Hong Kong?
Corruption is no longer open. In the past, we could see clearly corruption being committed: by taxi drivers, people asking money at schools or at hospitals, and so forth. After three years, people no longer demanded bribes. That was the clearest evidence, the most significant change in the culture of corruption. People no longer tolerated corruption in their lives and they were willing to report any forms of corruption to the police.
How do you establish an anticorruption culture in the education system?
All countries, including Indonesia, should stress cultivating an anticorruption attitude early on, such as in schools. In Hong Kong, that is what we teach in kindergarten.

In Indonesia, people generally think it would take an entire generation to change the culture of corruption because it has permeated all layers of society.
People think it takes a long time to fight really bad corruption. I disagree. The Hong Kong experience shows what can happen when the right strategy and the political will in fighting corruption are applied.

How bad was corruption in Hong Kong before the ICAC was established?
Let’s take the example of service in one  hospital, based on an account given by my own mother. In the past, she had to bring her own drinking glass because the hospital charged her one dollar for it. She even had to pay for her towels. Everyone thought at the time that giving and taking money was normal. After the ICAC began operating, a banner with the words, “Giving and receiving money is a violation of the law because it is a bribe. For complaints, call the hotline number,” was placed over every billing counter. Such signs can change people’s attitude.

Was anyone at the hospital ever punished for bribery?
We arrested one hospital employee who took money, even though it was a small amount. Yet, the media criticized us: Why is the ICAC punishing people over one or two dollars? They should be after the big fish, the big corruptors. We had applied the zero tolerance policy. Big fish and small fish, if it was bribery, it was still illegal. If we want to change the culture, never tolerate bribery, no matter how small. After that one arrest, there was never any case of people asking for money in the hospital.   

How did the people react when the ICAC finally went after the big fish?
Of course the people appreciated it very much. The anticorruption institution must go after the big fish so that they can demonstrate seriousness, although they cannot ignore the small cases either. That’s how the culture is changed.

Did the public ever criticize your institution?
Every year we would carry out a public opinion survey, and it would show that 98 percent of the people supported the ICAC. The survey also indicated that 90 percent of people in Hong Kong would not tolerate corruption. To the question, “Would you be willing to report a corruption case?” about 80 percent answered “Yes.”

Do you think the change in culture in Hong Kong happened because of the strong influence of British culture?
It had nothing to do with British culture but with human culture which seeks a clean culture. Corruption is global. There must be a campaign to make corruption a shameful activity. This can be done through campaign advertisements. Hong Kong had many, many anticorruption advertisements. For instance, on television, there would be a scene depicting a happy family having breakfast on their apartment balcony. An ICAC officer arrives and arrests the man in front of his wife and children. He goes to jail. The scene ends with the words: corruption destroys families.

Do you believe the death penalty is needed to eradicate corruption, as in the case of China?
I don’t think so. China applies the death penalty, yet corruption is still rife there. The maximum sentence given to corruptors in Hong Kong is 10 years and a minimum of 12 months, yet we have eliminated corruption. When senior officials are arrested, their reputation and their sense of integrity are lost. They bring shame to their families. And these are enough punishments in themselves.

Should there be some kind of incentive to compensate workers, particularly low-salaried government employees, to prevent bribes?
For low-salary government employees who find it difficult to buy milk for their babies, of course there must be an incentive not to commit corruption. That is why the government must guarantee an adequate minimum wage for its employees.

Bribery often involves more than one person. Can it be eliminated to the very roots?

We should punish both the givers of bribes, as well as the receivers. We cannot just investigate one person, because it is bound to involve many people. We used to investigate many people in one case, so that we can destroy the syndicate at the same time. Crime will go on if we arrest just one person. Everyone who is involved must be investigated at the same time. This is an important strategy.

People here doubt that corruption cases linked to politics will be dealt with.  
In Hong Kong, the investigation does not stop [when politics is involved]. We pursue it until we reach the top. Political parties have no impact on us. According to the law, we cannot stop. If we stop, the public will suspect there is something wrong going on. No one is immune from the ICAC. Anyone can be caught by the ICAC dragnet.

The challenge of corruption eradication in Indonesia is the police and the prosecutor, which often refuse to cooperate with the KPK.
You must start from the very top. The KPK chairman, the police chief and the attorney general must meet and try to resolve their problems jointly. They must meet officially, to identify the next steps. So, everything begins with cooperation among the leaders. This is where the president should step in: make the chiefs of related institutions to work together.

So, the president should be involved?
If necessary, yes. Generally, he is not needed because the leaders of the institutions should be aware of their respective tasks, so there should be no need for infighting.

Should the KPK have its own investigators?
The problem is how to apportion assignments.  The police cannot investigate corruption cases. If both the police and the KPK investigate simultaneously, there would be a conflict because the law is unclear about this.  The police should focus on criminal cases, like murder, kidnapping, theft and other crimes. Corruption must be managed only by the KPK. In every country, the anticorruption commission is the only institution authorized to investigate corruption cases. The police should not be allowed to be involved in corruption cases. The KPK must hold the sole mandate in anticorruption efforts. If two institutions are given the same authority, conflict is bound to happen.

But the KPK is a temporary institution.

This is why the KPK needs a legal umbrella. In many countries, their anticorruption institutions are embedded in their constitutions. In Hon Kong, the anticorruption institution is independent, regulated by laws. In Mongolia, the anticorruption budget cannot be rejected by parliament. So, parliament cannot reduce their functions nor their authority by cutting its budget. The KPK must be embedded in the constitution. And they must be given the guarantee to be the sole investigator of corruption cases, to ensure there is no conflict with the police. Even the Corruption Court must be embedded in the constitution.

The recruitment of KPK officials in Indonesia must be approved by parliament. Can this reduce its independence?

The process of recruitment is acquiring the right people for the right job. The objective is to get the best candidates to be members of an independent anticorruption commission, such as the KPK. This must not be mixed with political interests.

So the selection process in parliament is not needed?
There is no need for that. The public can and should monitor the selection process. If the president appoints Professor Tony Kwok, and the people support this, but parliament disapproves, there is bound to be critical reaction from the media and from public opinion.

Some people in Indonesia, including the president, once complained that the KPK’s authority was excessive.
This institution must have power. Otherwise, it cannot function. Of course, there must be consideration towards possible abuse of power. So, a mechanism to prevent such an abuse is necessary. In Hong Kong, we have an oversight unit that consists of people outside the institutions. They are community leaders whose task is to monitor the activities of the ICAC.

In fighting corruption, did the ICAC employees face physical threats or pressure?
Many physical threats, but we are professional agents. Investigating corruption is not the business of one person, but a team. If you killed me, it would be pointless, because someone else would be picking up the investigation. What is more important in fighting corruption is a witness protection policy, because the corruptors can easily threaten weak witnesses. We even had one case in which the witness was killed. So, a good witness protection program is definitely needed. The anticorruption institution must also convince everyone concerned that all its reports must be kept secret.

How to convince the public of the need for secrecy while supporting the whistle blower?
We must maintain secrecy. No one must know who the whistleblower is. If someone at the ICAC leaks such information, the person goes to jail. We have strict laws with regard to maintaining the secrecy of the whistleblower.

What if the whistleblower is part of the problem?
Although he may be involved in the crime, his identity can only be exposed through a court order with strong evidence. If the identity cannot be kept secret, the witness should enter a witness protection program.

There’s a film called I Corrupt All Cops, which tells the story of corruption inside the Hong Kong police force and the ICAC. Is this movie based on facts?
Everything in the film is true. The police force was very corrupt at one time. One joke went that one policeman couldn’t find a bed to sleep in because all the rooms in his home were full of money, covering all the beds.

Tony Kwok Man-wai

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  1. #1 by Jonathan on May 28, 2012 - 6:36 am

    Nice post which the problem is how to apportion assignments. The police cannot investigate corruption cases. If both the police and the KPK investigate simultaneously, there would be a conflict because the law is unclear about this. The police should focus on criminal cases, like murder, kidnapping, theft and other crimes. Corruption must be managed only by the KPK.Thanks a lot for posting this article.

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