A cool head takes on Legco's 'hot kitchen'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 3:27pm

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While his former colleagues try to put out the fires of scandal surrounding the new administration, former deputy education minister Kenneth Chen Wei-on will today swap the 'hot kitchen' of government for a job that could prove even hotter - as the Legislative Council secretary general.

Chen becomes secretary general-designate today before stepping up to the top job when Pauline Ng Man-wah retires on September 29.

He will face the challenge of managing the 70-strong legislature with complete impartiality - no mean task given that he has spent the last four years defending the government as education undersecretary.

He will be only the third person to take on the job and, unlike his predecessor, he did not rise through the 500-strong Legco secretariat. His challenges will include managing facilities and services at the new Legco complex in Admiralty, serving as the Legco president's principal adviser on procedure and overseeing the sticky issue of legislators' pay.

And it's not like the 47-year-old will be lavishly rewarded - he's taking a pay cut, to HK$187,000 (plus a monthly allowance of HK$21,290), about 12 per cent less than the HK$211,560 he received as former education chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung's deputy.

Chen will face competing demands from lawmakers and will also have to cope with their protests when his former government colleagues visit the legislature.

But Chen has pledged to work in a 'just and politically impartial manner'. During a visit to the Legco complex last month to meet Ng, he stressed he would not show favouritism towards the government.

According to outgoing education sector lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong, Chen will be 'doomed to fail' in his job if he loses his credibility by siding with the establishment.

'He is easy-going. When serving as undersecretary, he was not capable of lobbying [lawmakers]. But the Legco secretary general does not need to do a lot of lobbying. What matters is that he has to be fair and impartial when doing his job.'

Concerns about the current secretary general's impartiality came to the fore in May, when radical lawmakers attempted to filibuster a bill that would have banned legislators who resigned from running in by-elections for six months. After 33 hours of debate, pro-government lawmaker Philip Wong Yu-hong made a rare intervention, calling for the discussion to be cut short. His comments came shortly after he was seen to receive a note from Ng.

Just before that, Legco president Tsang Yok-sing was seen telling Ng he would 'soon take action' when lawmakers returned from a break - and he did, responding to Wong's request by invoking a never-before-used power to end the debate.

Cheung, the education lawmaker, said he believed Chen would focus on networking and making decisions on the secretariat's operations.

Chen's deputy, former assistant secretary general Justina Lam Cheng Bo-ling, will take charge of procedural matters. Lam, a long-serving member of the secretariat, was seen as a front runner for the post of secretary general, but was said to be overlooked because she was approaching the retirement age of 60.

Reviewing Chen's work in the education sector, Cheung said: 'He did not have significant achievements. He failed in settling the row over [high] textbook prices and the national education course. But his failure in that respect will not have much effect on his work at the Legco.'

A former director of the Jockey Club's racecourse business, Chen joined the government in July 2008.

As education deputy chief, Chen grappled with issues over textbooks, with a recent ban on 'bundling' books with other learning materials having a limited impact on prices. Even the unbundled textbooks rose 0.6 per cent year on year for primary school texts and 1.2 per cent for secondary school books, according to a study by the Consumer Council.

The government pondered central tendering of textbooks, but then-education secretary Suen admitted in May that the idea was not feasible unless the government made it mandatory for schools to use the textbooks that won in a tender. Instead, officials set up a HK$50 million fund for charity organisations to develop e-textbooks.

Jeremy Young Chit-on, a former political assistant at the Education Bureau, had a more positive view of his former colleague's work, praising Chen for being 'professional' and 'very diligent'.

'He paid visits to schools once a week or once every two weeks,' Young said. 'He directly chatted with students, teachers and principals to understand their needs.

'As he is focused at work, I believe he can do the Legco job very well,' he said, adding that Chen would not 'always stand on the side of the government' just because he is in it.

He also praised Chen for being able to keep his temper even if something went wrong.

'When a funding request was vetoed, he did not get very upset or furious,' Young said. 'He can get along with anyone. He is diplomatic when handling with people and has a good temper. He is also willing to listen to other people's opinions.'

The ex-assistant was referring to a decision by lawmakers to vote down a HK$42.3 billion grant for higher education institutions, which was only overturned.

While the incident said much about Chen's mild temperament, his decision to push for a vote despite lawmakers' misgivings hinted at a lack of political sensitivity in a universe where such instincts are of paramount importance.

His family also found itself in the spotlight in June 2009, when his wife planned a graduation ceremony for their two sons and their classmates at the German Swiss International School, despite a citywide school closure advocated by Chen in the face of a swine flu outbreak. But back then Chen faced no calls for his resignation - unimaginable today, as the government lost its development minister within two weeks of taking office in what Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor called a 'hot kitchen - a really hot one'.

Perhaps, despite the fruit-throwing and filibusters, handling the city's lawmakers won't be such a hot potato after all.

Kenneth Chen Wei-on

Age 47

Previously

Undersecretary for education, July 2008-June 2012; held various senior management positions in the Hong Kong Jockey Club, 2000-2008; a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit, 1998-2000

Education

A bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Princeton University, a master of science degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University and a master's degree in business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Personal

Married with two sons