Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Whistleblower's Song

In Hollywood movies, whistleblowers are portrayed as courageous Davids fighting the Goliaths of lies and deceit. From nuclear-plant worker Meryl Streep in "Silkwood" to tobacco executive Russell Crowe in "The Insider"—they're ordinary imperfect people propelled by different circumstances and motivation, but in the end they do the right thing at crucial defining moments.

Many Western countries mandate various forms of legal protection for whistle-blowers. But in Hong Kong's recent case—involving former GCIO Jeremy Godfrey versus his former employer over the tender process of the Internet Learning Support Programme (ILSP)—it seems the whistle was shoved right back down the blower's throat, with the Legislative Council silencing further investigation.

The contract was over HK$ 100 million, yet Hong Kong is not friendly to whistle-blowing. And it's thought that Hong Kong's economic prowess incorporates a tradition of transparency and openness. But are these cornerstones of our success only useful when they are applied to firms in the private sector?

LegCo should evaluate the case

Many in Hong Kong have taken great pains to ensure fairness in the most common form of the public sector's business selection process—tender exercises. This is especially important for us in ICT, where objective evaluations for procurement is paramount to a fair environment for development. It takes only one drop of ink to tarnish a pure white cloth.

As always, there is a Chinese saying just for the occasion: "For winds to blow in an empty cave, there must be a cause." In the ILSP case, Godfrey the whistleblower has presented a virtually complete case, waiting to be verified or disproved. However, a certain faction in LegCo, having enough votes to dictate the result, simply killed off any chance for the case to be proved or disproved.

Attacking the whistleblower's integrity was merely the means—the goal was to deny the legislature to exercise the rights and process of the Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance, which might let more beans spill.

Losing sight of the prize

Many have forgotten ILSP's original plan—helping children of economically disadvantaged families to catch up on the use of ICT in their education by learning at home. But according to Godfrey's version, some political power decided that this contract, which allowed the bid-winner to kindly present tech-devices to families—a goldmine of votes—was too attractive to be left to chance. So according to Godfrey, the top tiers of our government helped ensure a body more friendly to the aforementioned faction would win the bid to run ILSP. Failing that, it was ensured that this body would at least end up with half the pie.

That is a serious accusation which should not be ignored. If the whistleblower bluffed, he ought to be held accountable. However, while the faction that controlled the outcome at LegCo—including those accused by the whistleblower as the beneficiary of the manipulation—did their best to discredit the whistleblower, they deliberately avoided hearing the case, thus eliminating any chance of holding him accountable. Does this sound logical to you?

Election manifesto from 2008

In 2008, several LegCo functional constituency candidates, including myself, advocated a list of professional core values which said: "As professionals, we are concerned that Hong Kong's development and we are dismayed at the suppression of professional voices. Our legacy of good governance is being eroded by a combination of factors: cronyism, divisive politics, disrespect to scientific evidence and the trend of non-professionals leading professionals. This is profoundly harmful to Hong Kong."

On "integrity—speak truth unto power," our group stated, "In circumstances where political and economic pressure are rampant, speaking up for what is right and speaking out against what is wrong, on the basis of one's professional judgment, require great courage. We would change the culture so that speaking the truth becomes the norm in society. When that happens, such pressure will naturally vanish."

On "commitment—primary responsibility to the public," we said, "Professionals are often accountable to their clients or their teams. Yet when public interest is at stake, acting in the interest of the public is a manifestation of the professionals' primary commitment to society at large."

Does the failure to even hear the ILSP case reflect these principles? And if not, is this dismissal "profoundly harmful to Hong Kong"?

In the end, to those whistleblowers who speak truth unto power by putting the public interest first, let us dedicate this song to them: "Stand By Me."

Published in Computerworld Hong Kong, September 2011 issue

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