Brewing change in graft fight

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 24 Apr 2008

Like any law enforcement unit, the agency in charge of fighting corruption needs not only independent and fearless personnel but also a solid reputation that will strike fear into the hearts of the corrupt. It’s time to change the meaning of duit kopi.

AN invitation to a cup of coffee is the best way to drive fear into any Hong Kong policeman because such an invitation is usually extended to the cops by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

The terminology “cheng lei yum cafe” (have a cup of coffee on me) is an urban legend that has become famous in the Cantonese-speaking world to signify the fearless ICAC of Hong Kong.

Word has it that the phrase came about as an antithesis of the one used by gangsters in the Special Administrative Region to “invite” victims for table-talk by asking them to have a cup of tea.

Another version has it that questioning by the ICAC lasts right through the night and those being quizzed used to have to drink the thick brew to keep awake. By many accounts, the coffee served by the Hong Kong anti-corruption agency is particularly bitter.

However, here in Malaysia, coffee or kopi has a totally different connotation in the realm of corruption.

Duit kopi (coffee money) actually means a bribe.

Kopi-O licence means a driving licence obtained through a bribe.

It is time for us to change what coffee or kopi should mean. At best it should be a fresh brew to perk one’s spirit.

On Monday morning, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi started that process by announcing the wide-ranging reforms for the Anti-Corruption Agency including its conversion to become the Malaysian Commission on Anti-Corruption (MCAC).

Top ACA officials said that the MCAC and its laws are closely based on Hong Kong's ICAC.

The irony is that in the early 1970s the Hong Kong colonial government sent a delegation to Malaysia to study the then Biro Siasatan Negara (National Bureau of Investigation) the predecessor of today’s ACA.

The ICAC was widely based on the bureau’s hierarchy in the 70s. However, over the years, the Hong Kong anti-graft fighters have obtained a reputation as among the toughest in the world.

Historically, the ICAC is a law enforcement unit established hurriedly to deal with the widespread corruption in the then British colony in the 1960s and 1970s.

The following are excerpts of the ICAC’s explanation taken from their website ( of the circumstances leading to its formation:

“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 way of life.

“Corruption was rampant in the public sector. Ambulance crews would demand tea money before picking up a sick person and firemen would solicit money before turning on the hoses to put out a fire.

“Even hospital amahs (female attendants) 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 those involved in vice, gambling and drug activities. Law and order were under threat. Many in the community had fallen victim to corruption. And yet, they swallowed their anger.”

The ICAC was formed in February 1974 after the debacle in the handling of the investigations into a corrupt expatriate police officer Chief Police Superintendent Peter Godber.

Investigations showed he had assets of over HK$4.3mil in 1973 and it had been obtained from corrupt means but Godber fled the country.

The first task of the ICAC was to bring Godber back from England for trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to four years’ jail.

After that the ICAC had another series of high-profile arrests and this made the public hold the commission in the highest esteem.

But if truth betold, the legend of the ICAC is more hype than anything else.

From the start, the commission and the colonial government ensured that the reputation of ICAC was protected.

The Hong Kong movie (and later television) industry was encouraged to portray the commission in a positive light. The entertainment people responded with gusto and made “super heroes” of the ICAC officers.

Scriptwriters were given access to ICAC files so that they could come up with great storylines and in the 1990s, at the height of the popularity of Canto-drama series, ICAC officials were given a humanised background as well to ensure the public could identify with them.

The best looking and more famous actor or actress would play the role of ICAC officer. His investigation team consisted of loyal members who willingly gave their lives for the commission.

However, there are hardly any ICAC fatalities each year and most of their investigations rely on following the paper trail, far more humdrum than the versions portrayed on film or TV. Their PR units, with the help of the entertainment industry, ensured that the truth was massaged a bit to keep up the glamour.

Yes, the success rate of the ICAC is very high but it is after all the guardian of integrity for a territory of only about six million people.

Comparatively our own ACA has got just as good a record of arrests compared to the number of complaints lodged.

Unfortunately, its failure is in meeting the expectations of the people.

Our ACA also has to fight public perception that it is inefficient and even worse ineffective because it is perceived to be not independent.

Even if it is for that reason alone – to change public perception – the formation of the MCAC is most welcomed.

The new commission should not be saddled with the old problems of the ACA.

It must be a fresh start and most importantly it must be SEEN to be a fresh start.

The appointment of the Advisory Panel on Anti-Corruption will be key to this. Abdullah has to ensure that the people he chooses should be above reproach.

The panel should be allowed to operate independently so that its review of any decision by either the Attorney-General or the MCAC commissioner cannot be questioned.

One of the ways of ensuring that the ICAC staff members are not tempted by any offer of bribe was to pay them well.

The lowest-ranking officer at the ICAC – an assistant investigator – starts with a salary of HK$14,340 (about RM7,000) per month while the starting pay of a principal investigator at the agency is HK$84,660 (RM42,000).

The Prime Minister has announced that the Government would come up with a better pay package to attract more professionals to join the MCAC.

It would not be realistic to expect the same salary scale as the ICAC for our MCAC personnel.

The Government seems to have the political will to carry out the reforms to improve the public and global perception of Malaysia.

All that remains is for the politicians (on both sides of the divide) to give their undivided support to this move to reform and revamp the ACA, even if it may not be their cup of tea. Or should that be cup of coffee?

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