Face to Face with Simon Peh, Commissioner, Independent Commission Against Corruption

Simon Peh, Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, explains how the organisation has held the line against graft over the last four decades.

Large touch-screen plasma TVs flanked by a display of colourful handprints adorn the lobby of the ICAC’s headquarters in North Point, exhorting visitors to view the Commission’s collection of advertisements (otherwise referred to as APIs or announcements of public interest). This interactive advert, devised to move with the times, employs high-tech methods to get the ICAC’s message across. The colourful handprints symbolise the community joining hands with the ICAC to report graft.

Since its establishment in 1974, the ICAC has made APIs to publicise its anti-graft messages. The APIs within the ICAC’s collection allow viewers to step back in time, as each has been tailor-made to address the corruption issues prevalent during the era in which they were launched. In the 1970s, for instance, corruption was a way of life, existing “from womb to tomb”, so in those days, most of the ICAC’s APIs were created to educate people on how corruption affected society and to encourage them to report to the ICAC.

In the 1980s and 90s, as Hong Kong’s business sector rapidly developed, the ICAC produced APIs focusing on business corruption and how a person could lose everything if they engaged in corrupt activities. Other recent API themes include partnership, clean hands (with the upcoming elections), and babies (to keep with its recent advertising campaign slogan “A clean future for our next generation”).

The APIs create a neat visual record of the ICAC’s commitment to being responsive to change in its fight against corruption. More specifically, the current interactive display situated in the heart of the building’s foyer creatively illustrates the ICAC’s continued dedication to forge partnerships, maintain Hong Kong’s culture of probity and employ new methods to fight corruption.

Four Decades of Fighting Corruption

Since the ICAC launched its battle against corruption, it has waged without fear or favour wide-ranging anti-corruption initiatives and investigations into individuals at all levels of society. Over the last four decades, the Commission’s work has brought enormous changes within the community, successfully turning Hong Kong from a city once plagued by graft to one that is generally seen as being clean.

Mr. Peh, a veteran civil servant who seems whole-heartedly wed to his statutory mandate to serve, takes pride in the international recognition Hong Kong has received for its success in combating corruption. In fact, he said it was the ICAC’s stellar track-record in effectively fighting graft over the years that motivated him to take up the position after he retired from the Immigration Department in March 2011. “According to the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International,” he noted, “Hong Kong was ranked the 17th least corrupt place among 175 countries and territories in 2014.”

Although the Commission has come across various obstacles and challenges over the years, it has remained at the forefront in the fight against corruption through a three-pronged strategy of law enforcement, corruption prevention and community education.

Trifecta Perfecta

The ICAC was established in 1974 and derives its charter from the ICAC Ordinance (Cap. 204). The organisation comprises the office of the Commissioner and three functional departments (Operations, Corruption Prevention and Community Relations), serviced by the Administrative Branch.

For those unfamiliar with the division of work between ICAC’s functional arms, its Operations Department receives, considers and investigates alleged corruption offenses. Its Corruption Prevention Department examines practices and procedures of government departments and public bodies to reduce corruption opportunities and offers free and confidential prevention advice to private organisations; while its Community Relations Department educates the public against the evils of corruption and enlists public support in combating corruption. Mr. Peh indicated that this organisational structure, which the ICAC has maintained since its establishment, has enabled it to easily deploy the three-pronged strategy.

Mr. Peh believes this approach has been “vital” in the ICAC’s efforts to develop a “new public consciousness” and a “culture of probity”. It has long been recognised that prevention is just as important of a deterrent as prosecution, which is why the battle against corruption can only be won by changing people’s attitude toward graft, he explained. This comprehensive anti-corruption approach has proven to be effective over the years and has brought about a “quiet revolution”. It remains as the ICAC’s “guiding strategy” today, he said. It has also served as a sample reference for many countries.

Hong Kong's Most Valuable Asset

Hong Kong’s culture of probity has to be its most valuable asset – people in Hong Kong “hate corruption”, Mr. Peh said in a measured, matter of fact tone. Seemingly realising the boldness of his statement, he began rattling off a number of facts and figures from recently conducted surveys.

According to ICAC reports, Mr. Peh noted, 70 percent of complainants will reveal their identity when filing a complaint. This shows that the public is not afraid to report; that they trust the ICAC to protect their identity and the information that they provide; and that they are not afraid of revenge. To Mr. Peh, this was all very encouraging news – “it is not easy to build up such confidence among people [to openly report corruption], but that is what the ICAC has done over the last 41 years.”

The Ties that Bind

The ICAC has forged solid working relationships with anti-corruption forces in Mainland China and in other jurisdictions around the world. To effectively combat cross-boundary corruption, Mr. Peh said that it was necessary to cooperate on operational and educational fronts with other jurisdictions. He spoke warmly of the partnerships the ICAC has made with other agencies both domestic and international, which he described as “essential” to the ICAC’s successes.

Currently, the ICAC maintains regular operational liaisons with law enforcement agencies, including the Mainland’s procuratorates including the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (“SPP”) and the Guangdong Provincial People’s Procuratorate (“GDPP”), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and the Drug Enforcement Administration in the US, the Australian Federal Police, the Serious Fraud Office and other law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom, and the Interpol, etc.

Cooperation with Mainland China

Since 1990, the ICAC and the GDPP have put in place a Mutual Case Assistance (“MCA”) scheme, which allows both sides to render assistance in arranging witnesses to be interviewed or testify in court on a voluntary basis, or in the checking of public records. In April 2000, the SPP took over the role of contact point with the ICAC for cases involving all Mainland provinces other than the Guangdong province which continued to be served by the GDPP.

Since the MCA scheme was established:

  • Mainland procuratorate officials have travelled to Hong Kong on 697 occasions and interviewed 1,079 witnesses; and
  • ICAC officers have travelled to the Mainland on 470 occasions and interviewed 834 witnesses.

For preventive education, the ICAC maintains close co-operation with Mainland procuratorates, the Ministry of Supervision and the Macao Commission Against Corruption (“MACC”) through visits and exchanges, training programmes and production of corruption prevention guidebooks for cross-boundary businessmen.

The ICAC also jointly co-organises conferences with its counterparts in the Mainland and Macao. Most recently, they co-organised a conference for SMEs in the Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macao to strengthen businessmen’s understanding of the relevant anti-corruption laws and capabilities in corruption prevention.

From 2012 to 2014, the ICAC has also arranged nearly 400 talks for over 10,000 Mainland officials during their visits to Hong Kong. About 135 corruption prevention talks were held for Mainland-funded companies in Hong Kong, which reached over 6,000 staff members.

Current Challenges

While Mr. Peh has noted in other ICAC press releases that the ICAC has been encouraged by the judiciary’s recognition of the value of its work, he explained in our interview that the Commission still faces tremendous challenges, especially in conducting its law enforcement work.

“An Insidious Crime”

Mr. Peh was scathing about the threat posed by corruption, which he called an “insidious crime” that is becoming “increasingly secretive”. With advanced technologies, the modi operandi of criminals are increasingly complex and ever-changing, posing huge challenges to the ICAC’s investigative work. He explained that this requires the Commission to constantly explore new investigation techniques to outsmart criminals.

What’s more is that criminals now tend to conduct their corrupt transactions through more indirect and intricate methods, (eg, through overseas bank remittances or under the disguise of business activities of companies in different jurisdictions). In tracking the flow of funds involved in corrupt activities, Mr. Peh said there are many hurdles the ICAC has had to overcome, such as gathering evidence in overseas countries and seeking assistance from other jurisdictions. “This has made our investigations much more difficult and time consuming.”

When dealing with cases involving listed companies, Mr. Peh noted that the ICAC frequently comes across complicated accounting information and computer records which often results in prolonged investigations. To effectively investigate these types of cases, the ICAC must enlist the help of Forensic Accountants and those in its Computer Forensics Section.

Prevention and Education

Apart from law enforcement, the ICAC’s corruption prevention and education work also face new challenges that call for a proactive and interactive approach.

To keep pace with socio-economic and technological changes, the ICAC has crafted and launched tailor-made programmes for different sectors through digital platforms. It has also forged partnerships with major trade associations and professional bodies to promote and raise awareness about its integrity training and corruption prevention packages. These are part of our overall efforts to promptly respond to social changes and address public concerns when formulating our preventive education strategies, Mr. Peh explains.

On the education front, apart from face-to-face contacts such as talks and visits, the ICAC also disseminates anti-corruption messages through various online media including thematic websites, social media platforms (eg, Facebook and Weibo) and the ICAC smartphone app.

However, Mr. Peh said using social media has presented new challenges for the ICAC, as the organisation is not as familiar with using this media platform as it is with using traditional media. But given the importance of ensuring the culture of probity does not deteriorate, Mr. Peh said that it was vital for the Commission to move with the times. “We must reach out to the younger generation,” he said with conviction, stressing the need to “educate them and gain their support” and warning that we could “lose” younger citizens by over-relying on traditional media.

Interception of Communications and Covert Surveillance Operations

There is no question about the fact that the interception of communications and covert surveillance operations are critical to the capability of law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong, including the ICAC, in combating corruption and serious crimes and protecting public security.

Since the enactment of the Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance (“ICSO”) in August 2006, the ICAC has put in place various measures to ensure that all telecommunications interception and covert surveillance operations are conducted in full compliance with the ICSO and relevant requirements, he explained.

Notable measures that the ICAC has implemented include:

  • Operational guidelines and working procedures have been devised for officers tasked with conducting those operations, and these guidelines and procedures are kept under constant review.
  • A computerised management system has been put in place to control the issue and return of surveillance devices.
  • Regular briefings, workshops and training sessions are conducted with a view to enhancing officers’ understanding of the legislative requirements and implementation procedures in relation to ICSO duties.

“As a law enforcement agency, the ICAC will continue to enhance its surveillance capability, including acquiring an understanding of the latest development in relevant technology. The ICAC is obligated to comply with related laws and regulations in carrying out all work related to the interception of communications and covert surveillance,” Mr. Peh said.

Wired to Combat Corruption

As corruption has moved underground and criminals have been quick to exploit advances in information technology to facilitate their illicit activities, Mr. Peh explained that it has been necessary for the Commission to constantly explore new investigation techniques in order to outsmart criminals.

The ICAC has established different specialist units to provide support to its investigative teams. The Computer Forensics Section, established in 1999, provides support to frontline investigators in retrieving, securing and analysing electronic data for identifying valuable information for investigation and producing admissible evidence in court.

In 2014, the Computer Forensics Section took part in 157 operations and processed over 150 terabytes of data contained in the digital devices seized.

Due to the increasingly secretive and intricate nature of corruption crimes, Mr. Peh indicated that the ICAC has continued to step up the capabilities of its investigative arm (eg, through professional information technology training for frontline investigators) and has also strengthened case management support by developing a new generation information technology system.

Mr. Peh stressed that the ICAC will deal with such new challenges in strict accordance with the law at all times. “The ICAC is obligated to comply with related laws and regulations in carrying out its duties, no matter whether it relates to conducting investigations or collecting evidence.”

Looking Ahead – New Anti-Corruption Initiatives

Law Enforcement

Mr. Peh indicated that the ICAC’s Operations Department, its investigative arm, will continue to pursue a proactive strategy to combat corruption, strengthen intelligence collection and analysis capability, and strive to achieve a high degree of professional and operational effectiveness in order to foster public confidence in the ICAC and to encourage the community to report corruption.

“To cope with the increasingly sophisticated, secretive and intricate nature of corruption crimes, the ICAC will continue to enhance the capabilities of our investigative arm through professional training to meet operational requirements, such as financial investigation and computer forensics,” he said.

“We have also launched a mentorship programme. Over 30 veteran officers at Chief Investigator rank serve as mentors to junior officers and offer guidance to their mentees who have been with the Commission for less than five years.”

Corruption Prevention

To address public concern over the integrity of public officials arising from recent cases or allegations of corruption or misconduct involving government officials, the ICAC’s Corruption Prevention Department has launched a sample guide on conduct and discipline for staff of government departments.

Mr. Peh indicated that the Commission will also produce later this year a Best Practice Checklist on integrity requirements for the business sector when dealing with public officials as a reminder of the necessity of devising necessary corruption prevention measures.

In light of the corruption risks in the catering industry, the ICAC has also recently launched a Training Package and Best Practice Checklist on Catering Management for use by the catering industry, as well as tertiary and vocational training institutions conducing programmes on catering management and operation.

Community Education

As for the ICAC’s Community Relations Department, Mr. Peh said it will continue to disseminate anti-corruption messages through its community out-reach programmes.

As 2015 marks the beginning of a new election cycle, the ICAC is gearing up to launch comprehensive education and publicity programmes for the upcoming District Council election, the 2016 Legislative Council election and the 2017 Chief Executive election.

“For the business sector, we have commenced a three-year ethics promotion programme for listed companies with a new Toolkit on Directors’ Ethics in April this year. The toolkit, with inputs from professional bodies including the Law Society of Hong Kong, covers the most recent legal and regulatory updates pertinent to company directors’ ethics. A training video with a case study will be launched at a later stage and thematic seminars will be organised for listed companies.”

For government departments, the ICAC has recently launched an ethical management self-learning web portal for civil servants.

The ICAC will also continue to strengthen preventive education for new arrivals and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong to ensure that they understand the anti-corruption laws and the probity culture of Hong Kong.

Message for Solicitors

When asked if he had any particular message for Hong Kong solicitors, Mr.Peh said solicitors are in a good position to help organisations adopt good governance practices. “By providing sound counsel to and ensuring that corporations adopt ethical practices, solicitors can safeguard public interests. This will definitely be of great help to our anti-corruption work and maintaining a level playing field in Hong Kong,” he said.

He also indicated his gratitude for the input of the Law Society in compiling the new edition of the Toolkit on Directors’ Ethics and for its willingness to help enrich the content of a case study its Business Ethics Development Centre is currently working on.

In concluding, Mr. Peh said “both the ICAC and the legal profession share the same set of core values of justice, fairness and integrity which are the cornerstones of this city. In discharging our work with professional competence and high ethical standards, we all have an important role to play in keeping Hong Kong’s competitive edge in the global arena.”

Simon Peh Yun-lu
Commissioner, Independent Commission Against Corruption

Mr. Peh joined the Hong Kong Immigration Department as an Immigration Officer in April 1978 after graduating from The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He studied public policy and administration at the Graduate School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley from 1991 to 1992. He attended the Royal College of Defence in London in 2001 and was awarded Master Degree in International Relations by the King’s College London.

He was promoted to Director of Immigration in April 2008 after serving various branches in the Department. He retired from the Immigration Department in March 2011.

On 1 July 2012, Mr. Peh was appointed by the Central People’s Government, People’s Republic of China, as Commissioner of the ICAC.

Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters