Saturday, April 29, 2006

HK's Missing Legacy Part Deux

Sir Jack Cater's Legacy

The Missing Legacy was first written in a blog of mine dated 7 February 2006 - it was on the passing of Sir John Cowperthwaite, the person most responsible for HK's reputation as the freest economy/capitalism in the world. Cowperthwaite's passing did not get much press coverage at all in HK media, and that kinda pissed me off because a group of people who can forget so easily their "roots" and "how they got here" are doomed to lose the blueprint set by Cowperthwaite.

Now another old gwailo died, and his contribution to HK is no less than Cowperthwaite. Sir Jack Cater died on Guernsey on 14 April 2006 aged 84. He was the founding head of HK's infamous Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which took radical steps to combat graft in the police force in the 1970s. Cater went on to become HK's Chief Secretary, Acting Governor and Commissioner in London. Bribery had long been endemic in Hong Kong's police and civil service, but was thought of as being confined to the Chinese lower ranks, rather than expatriate officers. Calls to eradicate it were largely ignored by governors before Maclehose, who arrived in 1971. Maclehose lacked the political will to tackle the problem despite strong urgings by Cater . If you were to do a net search, you will find Jack Cater's passing only being solemnly mentioned within the HK's government admin portal at ... how soon we forget!

Cater even threatened to resigned in 1973 when trying to bring down Chief Superintendent Peter Godber. Godber fled HK while under investigation for amassing a fortune of several million pounds, much of it banked in Vancouver. Cater needed to strike at the top, even at one of his own, to further reinforce the dire need for eradication of corruption in HK. The developments forced the hand of Maclehose. Jack Cater was asked to form an independent anti-corruption unit with the support of a former Special Branch officer, John Prendergast.

The establishment and independence of ICAC is crucial to HK's economy. While Cowperthwaite had eradicated bureaucracy, you still needed "pure meritocracy" in the financial economic system to uphold its integrity and transparency. Only with those factors can HK gain an ever growing reputation as a true financial center - attracting professionals and companies to invest.

Cater's reputation for determined leadership had been established during the period of civil unrest in Hong Kong in 1967. He cared deeply about his work and about those closest to him, and he encouraged the careers of talented young officials - including women, who in earlier days had generally been denied promotion. In the first year of its operation, 1974, the ICAC handled 1,798 complaints of police involvement in bribery and extortion. It was said that more than a third of all Chinese policemen were members of triad gangs which controlled prostitution, drug-running and gambling across the Territory - rackets which, as Cater pointed out, raked in more than three times the profits of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank.

By October 1977 the Commission's uncompromising methods (it acted on anonymous tip-offs, and allowed no presumption of innocence) had caused such anger in the Police Force that 2,000 officers marched through the streets to present a protest petition, and a group of CID men stormed the ICAC's offices. Fearing a breakdown of order, Maclehose felt forced to declare an amnesty for all but the most heinous offences. In spite of this setback, the ICAC's work continued with unflagging determination. Investigations proceeded into other government departments, notably public works, education (parents were often asked for bribes to enrol children in schools of their choice) and health (hospital patients were forced to pay up for bedpans). It was indeed a cradle-to-grave system, with bribes demanded even for burial sites. Among those most grateful for the clean-up were the drivers of Hong Kong's battered fleet of minibuses, whose fares had for many years been preyed upon by bent policemen.

The ICAC was often accused of heavy-handedness, but its intervention provoked a culture change which still stands Hong Kong in good stead while corruption remains rife in other parts of Asia. Though Cater moved on in 1978 to the top civil service post of Chief Secretary, it was at the ICAC that he made his most significant contribution. Cater was Chief Secretary from 1978 to 1981. With a rapidly growing economy, it was a golden era for HK. Cater was several times Acting Governor, and was in line to succeed Maclehose in 1982; but Margaret Thatcher was persuaded to appoint a senior diplomat, Sir Edward Youde, to commence negotiations for the eventual handover to China. Instead Cater became HK's Commissioner in London until 1984. He then returned to Hong Kong to work in the private sector, joining China Light & Power Co - the electricity generator for Kowloon and the New Territories - and becoming head of Hong Kong Nuclear Investment Co, which was China Light's participation with Beijing in a nuclear power station venture at Daya Bay in Guangdong province. He was president of Hong Kong's Agency for Voluntary Service, a member of the Court of the University of Hong Kong and an international director of the United World Colleges, participating in the foundation of Hong Kong's own College at Shatin in the New Territories.

Again, another passing of an important gwailo being largely ignored by HK's media. Is it a gagging issue; were media companies trying not to agitate China's political HQ by not bringing up the "glory days" of British colonial influence? How many more "important gwailo septua/octo-generians" must die before HK people recognises its roots, and pay the according tributes and gratitude that are due. One can just imagine the gulf between HK and Singapore as financial centers if "true meritocracy" did not prevail in HK. Will Cater and Cowperthwaite ever make the books of HK's recent history. The Chinese have an oft-quoted saying, "when drinking water, one must never forget its source", how they got here. Just because some of them involved people who are not Chinese does not matter, and should not matter.

1 comment:

gsg said...

Your interests and knowledge really amaze me, thanks for another good piece