Former Hong Kong minister given suspended jail term for fraud

HONG KONG (AFP) - A former Hong Kong minister was on Thursday given an eight-month suspended prison sentence for fraud over his housing allowance, in a case which puts the city's clean image under scrutiny.

Former development secretary Mak Chai-kwong, 63, had been found guilty in June of defrauding the government out of HK$700,000 (S$114,380) by "cross-leasing" flats with a colleague, Tsang King-man, when he was a civil servant in the 1980s.

The pair leased apartments from each other's wives in order to claim the government rental allowance.

Tsang was given the same sentence.

Mak's arrest in July last year, less than two weeks after he was sworn in, rocked the former British colony known for its respect for the rule of law and relatively clean government.

He was the highest-ranking former government official to be convicted of a criminal offence since the 1997 handover to China.

His case is a blow to the image of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who appointed Mak as development chief in his inaugural administration.

Mr Leung's government is already under fire for its perceived closeness to Beijing, despite Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status, and what critics sees as its failure to solve livelihood issues.

According to a Chinese University of Hong Kong survey in July, only about 16 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the performance of Mr Leung's administration, and 37 per cent said they do not trust the government.

Since Mak's arrest, two more of Mr Leung's cabinet members have resigned and lawmakers have called for Mak's successor Mr Paul Chan to quit over his family's interest in farmland designated for redevelopment.

The sentences on Mak and Tsang, a former assistant highways director, were suspended for two years.

Judge Johnny Chan said that in deliberating sentence he took into account Mak's long service in the government and good reputation.

A recent Hong Kong University opinion poll showed that perceptions of a clean government have plunged to their lowest levels since 1998.