Since its inception in 1974, the Independent Commission Against Corruption has embraced a three-pronged approach of law enforcement, prevention and community education to fight corruption. With the support of the Government and the community, Hong Kong has now become one of the cleanest places in the world.
But how serious was the problem of corruption in Hong Kong before the ICAC came into being? What was the reason for setting up an independent body to fight corruption?
Let us revisit that part of the Hong Kong history that led to the birth of the ICAC.
Hong Kong was in a state of rapid change in the 1960s and 70s. The massive growth in population and fast expansion of the manufacturing industry accelerated the pace of social and economic development. The Government, while maintaining social order and delivering the bare essentials in housing and other services, was unable to meet the insatiable needs of the swelling population. This provided a fertile environment for the unscrupulous. Many people had to take the "backdoor route" simply to earn a living and secure other than basic services. "Tea money", "black money", "hell money" - whatever its name - became not only familiar to many Hong Kong people, but accepted with resignation as a necessary way of life.
Corruption was rampant in the public sector. Ambulance crews would demand tea money before picking up a sick person. Even hospital amahs asked for "tips" before giving patients a bedpan or a glass of water. Offering bribes to the right officials was also necessary when applying for public housing, schooling and other public services. Corruption was particularly serious in the Police Force. Corrupt police officers offered protection to vice, gambling and drug activities. Law and order was under threat. Many in the community had fallen victim to corruption. And yet, they swallowed their anger.
Corruption had become a major social problem in Hong Kong, but the Government at the time seemed powerless to deal with it. The community's patience was running thin and more and more people began to vent their anger on the Government's futile attempts at tackling the problem. In the early 70s, a new and potent force of public opinion emerged. People pressed incessantly for the Government to take decisive action to fight graft. Public resentment escalated to new heights when a corrupt expatriate police officer under investigation was able to flee Hong Kong. The case proved to be the last straw.
Controlling assets of over HK$4.3 million, Peter Godber, a Chief Police Superintendent, was under investigation in 1973. It was suspected that his unearned wealth had been obtained from corrupt means. But Godber managed to slip out of the territory undetected during the week given to him by the Attorney General to explain the source of his assets. Godber's escape unleashed a public outcry. Students spearheaded a mass rally in Victoria Park, protesting and condemning the Government for failing to tackle the corruption problem. Demanding prompt government action, protesters with slogans like "Fight Corruption, Arrest Godber" insisted that Godber be extradited to stand trial.
In response to mounting public demand, the Government was quick to take action. Following Godber's escape on June 8, 1973, Sir Alastair Blair-Kerr, a Senior Puisne Judge, was appointed to form a Commission of Inquiry into Godber's escape. He compiled two reports. The first detailed the circumstances of Godber's escape. In his Second Report, Sir Alastair pointed out that "responsible bodies generally feel that the public will never be convinced that Government really intends to fight corruption unless the Anti-Corruption Office is separated from the Police..."
In the wake of the Blair-Kerr reports, the then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose articulated for an independent anti-corruption organisation in a speech delivered to the Legislative Council in October 1973.
"I think the situation calls for an organisation, led by men of high rank and status, which can devote its whole time to the eradication of this evil." Sir Murray told legislators. "A further and conclusive argument is that public confidence is very much involved. Clearly the public would have more confidence in a unit that is entirely independent, and separated from any department of the Government, including the Police."
Many in the community sensed the wind of change at this time. They started to see the Government setting the stage for the birth of an effective anti-corruption regime.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was established in February 1974. Since its inception, the Commission has been committed to fighting corruption using a three-pronged approach of law enforcement, prevention and education. The ICAC's first important task was to bring Godber to justice. In early 1975, Godber was extradited from England to stand trial. The charges were a conspiracy offence and one of accepting bribes. Godber was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Godber's extradition and prosecution were an unmistakable statement of ICAC's determination and resolve to eradicate corruption. It was this landmark case that kicked off a new start against corruption and the beginning of a quiet revolution.