By SC Leung
First, it was the left luggage scandal involving possible abuse of authority by the Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying; then came the queue-jumping of a pro-Beijing party heavyweight seeking a non-urgent operation at a public hospital. Scandals like these raise the question where the boundary lies between following rules of professional conduct and operational flexibility.
Can the two be distinguished, or is ambiguity a necessary evil as Hong Kong integrates with mainland China? The IT Voice put this question to several professionals from different sectors.
Finance sector: what worries us is “special arrangements according to the law”
“The regulation of the finance sector has always been very stringent, and it leaves no room for so-called ‘special arrangements on special occasions’,” says Eric Yip, convener of Financier Conscience, a pro-democracy pressure group in the industry.
Banks may set different priorities for their customers according to the value of the client’s assets, or provide tailor-made services, but Yip says all services and related products the finance sector provides are under the supervision of the Securities and Futures Commission and the Monetary Authority.
“Grey areas may exist in some frontline procedures in the finance sector, such as verification of account details, but the supervisory bodies have enormous power so anything that crosses the line would definitely be exposed and condemned,” Yip says.
But with mainland Chinese firms now expanding at a much faster pace than their overseas counterparts in Hong Kong, he says the trend to tap the market in mainland China has and continues to influence the framing of relevant laws and regulations.
The worst scenario, he says, is one in which the practice of “special arrangement” finds its way into the legal framework and is thus legitimized.
Construction sector: exemptions are granted only after tight scrutiny
“Construction projects that are granted exemptions from the Buildings Ordinance need to comply with a set of stringent requirements,” says Kwan Siu-lun, member of Archivision, a pro-democracy concern group in the construction industry.
Citing the firefighting system as an example, Kwan says applications for exemptions can be granted even for essentials such as sprinklers, as they may not be the most effective means in high-ceilinged buildings like the airport terminal. But the architect would then be required to come up with alternatives to sprinklers, which would often call for more complex submissions, such as a computer simulation to show the effectiveness of the alternative solution.
“The Buildings Department is very strict. It is not easy to exploit legal loopholes,” Kwan says, pointing to the quick appearance of amendments to current regulations after developers were found to have included extra-large windowsills in the net floor area.
As for the lead-tainted water scandal and the roof collapse at the City University, Kwan says he believes that the events, however unfortunate, are individual cases which have no bearing on the current supervisory mechanism. He says the incidents might have more to do with the inaction of the people in charge rather than “special arrangements” being allowed.
Legal sector: laws are made to be followed
“A layman may ask, for the same act of theft, why this person is sentenced to prison while another only gets a community service order. Where is the line drawn?” says Kevin Yam Kin-fung, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group.
The problem is the public’s lack of understanding of how the courts determine sentences, says Yam. The process involves a “starting point” for the convicted offence, which is modified based on the circumstances of each individual case. No matter how wide the differences, Yam says the court’s decision has to be based on law and precedent, and that leaves no space for “special arrangements”.
“Besides being the legal representatives of their clients, lawyers are at the same time officers of the court and are obliged to act as gatekeepers,” Yam says; most legal practitioners place enormous importance on this obligation and would follow this line rather than risking their careers for short-term benefits.
IT sector: copyright and privacy are valued
“Hong Kong’s IT sector is incredibly flexible – as long as it is within the budget, we are always willing to go further and beyond for our clients whenever they request modifications for the product,” says Wong Ho-wa, a front-line IT professional.
When it comes to technical issues related to privacy, and especially the handling of personal data such as medical records of hospitals, Wong says IT industry practitioners handle it with care even when they are not asked, with no possibility of any “special arrangement”.
Such professionalism, he says, is also displayed in the industry’s respect for copyright. “Most of us are against the notion of stealing others’ hard-earned success to make money,” Wong says, adding that this is what distinguishes Hong Kong’s IT sector from their counterparts in mainland China.
“Special arrangements” have never been the norm in Hong Kong. But recent incidents do suggest a worrying trend. Some “should-be gatekeepers” did not do their checks but rationalized the abuse of privilege of those in high positions as norms. They undermined the rule of law, and reduced the credibility of their institutions.
Practitioners in different professions should brace themselves for increasing challenges posed by the growing mentality of the “rule of man”. This will be a test of their belief in professionalism, and their loyalty to the core values of their professions.
SC Leung is an IT Voice member and Information Security Professional.