Upright ways

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2012, 12:00am


All the insiders know it: serving as a senior official in colonial Hong Kong government is the next best thing to being the most powerful ruler in the world. Perhaps even better.

Before 1997, Hong Kong's senior civil servants enjoyed the best of both worlds - high social status and a handsome remuneration package superior to that of most presidents and prime ministers in democratic countries. Though unelected, their lack of a direct, popular mandate was more than compensated for by traditional Chinese respect for high officials.

For decades, acting as quasi-ministers, Hong Kong officials put up a stellar performance in many international organisations requiring technical expertise in specialised areas. Be it the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organisation or the World Trade Organisation, to name a few, and whether participating as members of the UK delegation or as representatives of a non-state contracting party, Hong Kong officials had done Hong Kong proud.

Yet the golden days of Hong Kong as a bureaucrat's paradise ended with the onset of democratisation a decade or so before 1997. The rude awakening came soon after 1997, when the administration found it hard to secure a vote of thanks from the legislature for the chief executive's annual policy address, a situation undreamt of in the colonial era.

Though shorn of the power to take legislative or spending initiative, the legislature grew increasingly powerful, projecting itself as representative of the will of the people. The recent success of People Power, an extremist faction within the pan-democratic camp, in derailing the chief executive's government restructuring plan drives home the new political reality confronting our well-heeled bureaucracy.

You can blame it on the system, but other factors are responsible. The past seven years under the stewardship of veteran bureaucrat Donald Tsang Yam-kuen have been disappointing because of not only his lack of vision, but also his alleged acts of greed which bordered on corruption. We thought we had a chief who should excel because he knows the system, but Tsang drove it to the ground and left the government's reputation in tatters.

More recently, the public service has been taking one blow after another as senior officials became embroiled in scandals involving alleged criminal conduct. Recently appointed secretary for development Mak Chai-kwong had to step down following accusations that he made fake claims for tenancy allowances. And just as Hong Kong was reeling from that crisis, the community learned of former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan's alleged involvement in multiple charges of bribery and public misconduct. Mak made history as Hong Kong's most short-lived minister.

Needless to say, a 'white terror' gripped the civil service, as senior officials wondered whether there was a secret vendetta against certain officials, or a covert campaign to destabilise the government, and hence Hong Kong as a whole. Senior officials could not but wonder who would be next.

It is imperative that confidence in our civil service be restored as soon as possible. Despite the allegations involving some of Hong Kong's most trusted and capable former officials, we should not throw up our hands in despair and write off our civil servants.

Recent events must be kept in perspective. Consider that in the tumultuous 15 years after the transfer of sovereignty, as the insufficiently prepared administration grapples with unprecedented challenges to its authority, it has been the civil servants who have been holding the centre together, by doing their daily tasks diligently, professionally and competently, give and take a few blunders from time to time.

Speaking as a legislator of four years, there is no doubt in my mind that senior civil servants remain the repository of expert knowledge, guiding the legislators through complex legislative process involving bills running into thousands of pages and hundreds of clauses, as we politicians dart from one subject to another, chasing hot-button issues and producing sound bites to impress the media.

While thundering politicians might from time to time grab the limelight as men (or women) of the moment, civil servants have been the bedrock of stability. They know their stuff, and by and large they respect established procedures and abide by the law.

The fact that their competence and versatility are respected by the public is borne out by repeated popularity polls which show ministers with civil service background scoring consistently higher than newcomers. Such ministers have a much higher survival rate than the outsiders. The public know them as safe pairs of hands.

There is also much to be said for rewarding them with a comfortable package. Civil servants share a common lifestyle and often a common circle of friends. Through being able to count on the stability of their pensions, they are insulated from the need to curry favour with the rich when they are in office. At least that's how the compensation package and pension system are supposed to work.

Civil servants are exemplary members of the middle class, especially given their emphasis on the importance of quality education. Through bringing up their children to be well-educated professionals or civil servants like themselves, they are strengthening the thickest and most stable middle stratum in an ideally diamond-shaped society.

We have every right to be sad and angry at the betrayal of our trust by a small number of senior officials, but there is no reason to lose hope. And we cannot rely on criminal sanctions alone to uphold integrity. The responsibility falls on everyone in the public service, especially those at the top, to show moral leadership. Legislators and officials alike share a common responsibility.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party