Many Hong Kong people credit the British colonial government for establishing the ICAC and making Hong Kong a renowned corruption-free society. But this statement is only half true. One should also ask why Hong Kong was so corrupt in the first place. Pre-1974, corruption in colonial Hong Kong had gone from bad to worse. By the 1970s, the problem was probably the worst in the world. Corruption was described as affecting Hongkongers “from womb to tomb”.

Almost every Hongkonger experienced it at some point in their life. It was amazing to observe at the time that whenever Hong Kong had a new governor or new police commissioner coming from Britain to take office, they would vow to eradicate corruption, only for the problem to be worse once they had completed their term.

When Murray MacLehose arrived on November 19, 1971 to be the 25th governor, he was said to have been briefed upon arrival on the seriousness of corruption and urged to take strong action. But, apparently, such advice was ignored. It was only two years later, in 1973, when chief superintendent Peter Godber escaped a police investigation into his unexplained wealth and absconded to Britain, sparking a huge public protest, that MacLehose was forced to address the problem. He set up the ICAC in 1974.

To be fair, some credit should go to him for appointing the right people to head the ICAC. Jack Cater was named the first commissioner and John Prendergast the first head of operations. Both men were instrumental in setting up an excellent system at the ICAC that has enabled its continued success to this day.