HONG Kong has become cleaner - it seems. The number of corruption reports made to its anti-graft watchdog this year looks set to fall to a two-decade low, due possibly to "heightened awareness of the public against corruption".
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) received 2,451 complaints from the public, informants and whistle-blowers as at end-November, it told The Straits Times.
This is a sharp drop from the 3,731 complaints lodged last year, and marks a low since 1992 when 2,257 were made.
In particular, the number of complaints involving building management dropped "significantly" - by 39 per cent - following intensive campaigns in recent years, the agency said in an e-mail reply to queries. Malfeasance in this industry was the largest source of complaints about the private sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all complaints.
But the upbeat picture has been muddied by speculation that the drop in complaints was due to a decline in Hong Kongers' confidence in the ICAC, deterring people from lodging reports.
The last time it saw a similar drop was in 1978, after it granted partial amnesty to policemen whose offences were committed before 1977, notes Mr Stephen Char, an ICAC chief investigator turned barrister. "People thought the ICAC was letting the police off too easily, and didn't want to work with us," he said.
Some media reports suggest that the current decline is the result of a probe into former ICAC commissioner Timothy Tong for overspending on wining and dining on the public account.
Refuting this, the ICAC said initial findings of its annual opinion survey, now being analysed, show that an even higher percentage of respondents, compared to last year's 79.2 per cent, are willing to report corruption. A vast majority expressed support for it. "From our regular close contact with various strata of the society in the past year, we understand that the general public continued to support the ICAC."
Corruption experts such as academic Sunny Lo concur, saying he believes the decline in complaints shows Hong Kong is "entering a period of consolidation".
"After so many years of active community outreach by the ICAC, the people have developed a sense of how corruption is not tolerated, and a certain level of ethical standards," says Prof Lo.