Loyalty survey may hurt morale

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 1995, 12:00am

PETER So Lai-yin's decision to retire early has drawn a mixed reaction from various quarters of the Government, especially within the police force.

Sceptics considered that as the deputy commissioner of police tasked to shore up force morale to halt any potential exodus, Mr So set a very bad example in inspiring confidence.

But sympathetic commentators respected his decision. After all, he's a human being and is equally troubled by the uncertainty brought by the sovereignty change in 1997.

Since the revelation of his early departure, word that he was not on smooth working terms with Commissioner Eddie Hui Ki-on also emerged from within the force.

Until now, Mr So has kept quiet on the subject; the real reason for his decision remains obscure.

Regardless of the real cause of Mr So's action, the responsibility for keeping the force together should not be shouldered by him alone. While it is wrong to say that Mr So's action would not have an impact on other officers, it is also unfair to say that his decision alone would feed the flames of a staff exodus.

Critics say that if Mr So cannot convince himself that there's a future serving the force beyond 1997, how can he expect the rest of his team to remain in the law enforcement agency? The argument sounds convincing, but realistically, how police officers view their career beyond the changeover is a far more complicated consideration. Mr So's action is probably one of many factors affecting their own assessment. Many officers, who have the option to leave with a fat pension payout before 1997, can still keep choices open until the very last minute; there is still more than two years before the sovereignty change.

All those who have accumulated months of leave only need to give six months' notice before they step down. The working conditions, the working atmosphere, the working relationship among officers and their superiors, China's policy towards Hong Kong and the availability of alternatives are key factors influencing their choice.

Expatriate officers who are entitled to the $1.4 million compensation package under the terms of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service (HMOCS) and can retire early, may see their circumstances differently from those who eye the promotion opportunities brought by the potential gap left by the expatriate departures. No hard and fast rule can be drawn in governing officers' willingness to serve beyond 1997.

Maybe it is precisely this difficulty in gauging the staff's view that led Mr Hui to order the survey of 3,000 senior officers to find out their career plans. Such a survey may be well-intended, but it is highly unlikely its findings will truly reflect officers' intentions. The Beijing-appointed Preliminary Working Committee (PWC) alarmed many of Hong Kong's civil servants last year when it proposed that government employees should indicate whether they would stay or leave their jobs after 1997.

Objection to the PWC proposal was prompted by fear that such a declaration would amount to an allegiance test. Mr Hui might try painstakingly to assure his colleagues that the poll was not meant to force them to declare their stance, but interviewees may see it differently.

While the survey is only half-way through, there have already been a number of criticisms made over the way the poll was conducted.

OFFICERS are unhappy that they have to sign their names to their intentions, prompting similar concern about allegiance tests. Others are critical that some of the interviews are done in groups, making them subject to group pressure. More extreme cases have seen officers completing the interview within one minute, rendering the exercise meaningless. The grievances expressed so far have already cast doubts on the validity of the survey findings.

If we cannot expect civil servants to reveal to China their real intentions to stay after 1997, it would be equally unrealistic to hope for police officers to tell force management now. Instead of helping Mr Hui to work out the succession plan for the police force, the survey may generate more resentment and suspicions which are hardly conducive to persuading staff to stay.