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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Unanswered Questions

A civil service scandal rocks the government

By Alejandro Reyes / Hong Kong


IT HAS ALL THE markings of a mystery novel. At the center of the controversy is Laurence Leung Ming Yin, director of the Immigration Department until July last year, when he abruptly resigned, taking immediate early retirement for what he and the government described as “personal reasons.” In government for 31 years, Leung, 55, had even received a royal award for his service. Why had he left so suddenly? And why did the government accept his resignation with immediate effect?

Rumors swirled. Did he want to emigrate ahead of Hong Kong’s July handover to China? Had he upset his bosses somehow? Some suggested that Leung had provided Chinese authorities with sensitive information on mainland dissidents in the territory and on civil servants holding foreign passports, and other residents who had received British nationality under a Beijing-criticized scheme. Conspiracy theorists alleged Leung was a mainland spy. They also reckoned that his departure was somehow connected to the still unsolved murder of his 22-year-old daughter Sylvia in 1993 in Burnaby, near Vancouver, Canada. An aspiring singer, Sylvia had bled to death after being hit in the shoulder by a bolt from a crossbow. There was speculation that she had been killed by triads in a vendetta against her father.

At the time, Leung said that his health and difficulties overcoming grief at his daughter’s death were factors in his resignation. Governor Chris Patten stuck to the line that Leung had left of his own accord. But Legislative Council (Legco) members called for an explanation. While Hong Kong authorities remained tightlipped, Patten himself refused to pay even the slightest tribute to Leung.

With legislators crying cover-up, Leung finally gave his side of the story at a Legco hearing on Jan. 10. He revealed that he had been investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the territory’s anti-graft force, but had subsequently been cleared. He had been forced to resign when the Secretary for the Civil Services Lam Woon Kwong confronted him and told him that either he should seek early retirement or the government would take action. “He said the government had lost confidence in me,” Leung testified. “I asked why. He said I should know. I said I didn’t know. I still don’t know.” Leung shocked legislators when he admitted that he had spent ten minutes with Chinese official Chen Zuo’er on the same day he had resigned. He insisted, however, that the meeting had been arranged beforehand and he had only informed Chen that he had decided to retire.

After Leung’s appearance before the legislature, Lam quickly verified that he had given Leung the choice of retiring or facing disciplinary action. At a Jan. 15 Legco committee hearing, Lam confirmed that Leung been the subject of an ICAC probe of his assets, which the government alleged were out of proportion to his earnings. Lam said that the investigation failed to uncover enough evidence to prosecute. But, he told legislators, “the ICAC investigation uncovered information which caused us to have grave doubts on Mr. Leung’s suitability to remain in the service.” He denied, though, that Leung had handed China any secrets: “There is no evidence to suggest that the security and integrity of any system for which the Immigration Department is responsible has been compromised.”

Lam said that the ICAC had nonetheless uncovered “incidents” that led him to conclude that Leung had “failed to meet the high standards of conduct, discipline and integrity we expect of a head of a department.” Among the alleged irregularities: Leung had failed to repay a $227,000 government housing loan even after he had sold the Canadian home he had bought with the money. Also, he had neglected to disclose directorships he had in three companies, business connections he had with a Legco member, and investments he had made in China. According to Lam, Leung told probers that he had forgotten to make the required disclosures.

The allegations against Leung have not dispelled the concerns about the integrity of the civil service, whose loyalties will be severely tested over the transition period. The case has also embarrassed Patten, who has made more open and transparent government a benchmark for his administration. “The government has chosen to cover this whole affair in a shroud of secrecy,” says legislator Selina Chow Liang Shuk Yee, who pushed for the probe. Complains fellow Legco member Emily Lau Wai Hing: “I don’t know whom to believe anymore.” Though more hearings are scheduled, Hong Kong people are not likely to be any the wiser.


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