If the justice system lacks integrity, that would have far-reaching adverse effects on every other system. Accountability and fairness of every other system is tested and held intact through the justice system, which is also the last resort for people to seek redress. When the justice system starts wobbling or cracking, it affects other systems as well as people’s confidence in the government as a whole. In other words, when any system, especially governmental systems, are becoming dysfunctional, people turn to the justice system to right the wrong. That is why it is important for any country to have an independent, impartial, effective justice system based on the rule of law.
The link between the justice system and all other systems in a country, for example, housing, health care, education, banking and financial, is intrinsic. Hong Kong’s traditional reputation as a leading global financial hub is fundamentally linked to the justice system and the rule of law it has painstakingly built. The most important principle to safeguard the justice system is not to interfere with it, and especially to keep political influence out of it. When politicians begin to interfere with and influence the justice system, people lose trust in the final and most important institution they could rely upon. When people lose trust in the system they have built over decades by themselves, they begin to feel let down, demoralized and insecure. When people are insecure and demoralized, they begin to look for alternatives and secure places to live their lives, because people in general, wherever they are in this world, do not like to live in insecurity and fear. People also do not like to live in uncertainty. Robust and fair governmental systems put people at ease—they become less worried and could go on with their lives. People could then focus on their work and contribute to the country and the city productively as they feel secure and free. This is not utopia. This is the Hong Kong its people built over decades. When they saw that system was adversely affected, they first tried to express their views through peaceful means, like millions marching peacefully on the streets. But when such efforts failed, they felt ignored and helpless. As a last resort, many might give up and look for more secure places to live in and bring up their children. Why? Because they are losing a system that they grew up and lived in, and that they could trust.
Traditional Hong Kong is a society based on truths and accountability. I remember an incident involving one my finance staff member a few decades ago. I had to claim some petty cash for a small expense. She was 10 cents short because coins in her petty cash box were insufficient. I told her not to worry for 10 cents, and just give me the rest. She refused to do so—10 cents mattered to her. It was not the amount of money, but the principle—accuracy, truthfulness, and accountability. Similarly, when I had to return some cash back to her and was 10 cents short, she would ask for it too. That is what I love Hong Kong for - integrity and accountability from the bottom up. Hong Kong painstakingly cultivated people’s truthfulness and accountability for a decade through the education system and professional training. But integrity must be from the top down. When people behave with integrity, they expect their authorities to act with equal if not higher degree of integrity. When that does not happen, people begin to give up. What I am writing here may appear very negative and depressing, but it is unfortunately the reality we are facing in Hong Kong. I have learned many people are planning to leave this city. Most of them are not political people or people with strong political views, but rather ordinary people constituting the backbone of Hong Kong. Without them, Hong Kong will never be the same.
Former director of FBI of the United States, James Comey, talks openly about wrongdoings of FBI in his book Saving Justice. He, as a leader, tells the hard truth. He is not hesitant to talk about the mistakes of FBI which have resulted in hundreds of wrongful imprisonments or even wrongful executions of people. He talks about the mistakes made in the past with the intention to prevent them from being committed again in future—to safeguard the justice system from being destroyed. Referring to miscarriage of justice due to mistakes made by the FBI, Comey says, “In admitting the mistakes, … we were trying to remedy injustice in individual cases. But by admitting our mistakes publicly, we were trying to do something larger. If the American people were to trust us, they needed to know we would speak the truth, including about ourselves. … Without the trust of our citizens, we were ineffective.” He goes on to say, “Like the Department of Justice of which it is a part, the FBI depends upon the trust and confidence of the American people. If the FBI isn’t trusted—in courtrooms, on street corners ..—it can’t keep people safe. And being trusted means telling the truth, about successes and failures. … American people could decide what to do with that truth, but they had to know it, all of it.” Here, Comey fundamentally refers to safeguarding the integrity of the justice system. One needs a lot of courage to be humble and truthful to take bold steps to safeguard the integrity of the most important institution a country has.
Justice system is the last resort for people. We need to do everything possible to prevent any interference with it. We need the highest integrity of the justice system. When the justice system does not function fairly, people know it and feel it deeply. Then they see that the last resort they have is gone. I hope everyone will work towards maintaining the integrity of Hong Kong’s justice system, because we simply cannot afford to lose it. If the foundation cracks, the building would collapse. That foundation is the justice system with high degree of integrity.
(Yan Kei, Advocate for criminal justice reforms)
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