The call of duty

June 07, 2021 14:25
The Government appointed Ms Priscilla Wong Pui-sze as the Chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) for a term of two years with effect from June 1, 2021. Photo: IPCC/RTHK)

When a senior police officer was caught in a raid on a brothel masquerading as a massage parlour, it certainly titillated the imagination.

Especially when, exposed over a month after the event (precisely when the public has not been told), it was then announced that Frederic Choi, a senior assistant commissioner (SAC), was not guilty of any morally reprehensible conduct.

Of course not, that is unthinkable. Yet, one does begin to wonder why the SAC tipped to be a future commissioner remains suspended from duty as the force’s director of national security; and why it has taken over a month for the news to break or leak?

Remember that the SAC with 25 years as a cop under his belt heads the body that the national security law wants people to snitch to, Hong Kong’s Stasi.

But, perhaps in this new era of heightened awareness of security, it is imprudent to inquire too closely about anything involving institutional figures, particularly those in NSL enforcement. When it transpires that the man is in charge of that very department, it is definitely time to stop asking questions – or even thinking about them. It is not only the cat that curiosity kills.

There is no suggestion of any misconduct (not yet, as Choi remains suspended for reasons unrevealed), let alone crime – visiting an unlicensed massage parlour is not a crime; running one is.

Yet, allowing one’s imagination to roam, one wonders if the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is empowered to hear complaints against the NSL department.

As a statutory body charged with overseeing complaints filed with the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO), the IPCC has been as active and effective as a hernia at a weightlifting competition. As watchdogs go, it is a toothless, mangy, neutered excuse for the real thing.

Anthony Neoh QC SC, who has recently stepped down as the IPCC chairman, once observed the statutory body does not have the necessary powers to investigate complaints. It cannot summon witnesses, nor can it take evidence on oath.

Be that as it may, it used to be the practice to appoint outstanding senior counsel to chair public bodies such as the IPCC, this ensured that they were headed by acknowledged leaders in their professional field.

A leading barrister in the field of international trade and a past chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, Neoh has dedicated much of his time to public service, including a five-year stint – for a yuan a year – as an adviser to then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji to reform the regulatory framework in the mainland. He is also a man of complete integrity.

What can one say about his successor, Priscilla Wong, a practising barrister whom I have not had the chance to meet in court.

What appears in the public domain is a record of public services, notably as an IPCC member between 2005 and 2010, a Hospital Authority board member since 2015, and the current chair of the Minimum Wage Commission (MWC). She is also a Shanghai committee member of the CPPCC (otherwise known as the top political advisory body in the PRC) and a Bronze Bauhinia Star holder.

Not much else is known about the new IPCC chair, except perhaps that she is married to Martin Liao, a fellow barrister, a legislator, a non-executive member of Exco (aka the Carrie Lam cabinet), a Hong Kong delegate to the NPC (i.e., the PRC legislature), a steward of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, an independent director of the Bank of China and a Gold Bauhinia Star holder. At the start of this year, Liao has also been re-appointed as the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Corruption, which advises the Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on “any aspects of corruption problems in Hong Kong, and keeps the operational, staffing and administrative policies of the ICAC under review”.

No advocate for democracy, which he is reported to have described as “dictatorship of the majority”, the seasoned Liao is said to regard many Hong Kong people as “politically immature”, for whom “one man one vote” is not necessarily “the best thing”.

I digress, let me return to the new IPCC chair and the daunting task ahead.

“I believe that the IPCC will continue to actively and effectively discharge its independent statutory monitoring functions under the leadership of Ms Wong, the new chairman, further strengthening the effectiveness of and public confidence in the police complaints system,” said the secretary for security.

If John Lee says so, it must be true. Far be it from me to suggest that the new IPCC chair would not perform her duties with meticulous adherence to impartiality.

But quiet consideration of the importance of public confidence would probably have considered making this appointment free from the appearance of bias. Appearances count for a great deal and the legal definition of bias is how something would appear to an independent observer.

Going through the damning judgment of Harris J in the case of HCCW 354 of 2016 leaves one with a distinctly unfavourable impression of Ms Wong as a fellow member at the Bar.

Leaving aside the eye-popping sum of $24,887,275 charged over a 13-month period in mid-2015 to mid-2016, it is more than a trifle ironic that the MWC is chaired (since March 2017) by a professional commanding an hourly rate of $8,000 when the minimum wage is currently kept at a meagre $37.50.

Historically, the only Hong Kong organisation that has held the police to account is the ICAC. Despite some disturbing allegations of police abuse of power in recent times, the ICAC has been conspicuously absent.

Doubtless, however, we will all be able to rest assured that the new IPCC chair will bring a fresh mind to her work.

What a pity that his duties at AC-12 in Line of Duty are so demanding; otherwise, Superintendent Hastings would have been ideal for the chair.

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