Shipping magnate's transition to politician

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 1998, 12:00am

It was billed as a policy speech but it was actually more of a project speech. There can be few issues which Tung Chee-hwa did not cover yesterday or for which he did not have some proposal.

But tucked into it here and there were nuggets of policy measures, some direct and others more of an admission that things have not gone as well as they might have and that changes may be required.

The most obvious of these was in housing policy. Mr Tung did not say that his earlier aggressive push for 85,000 units a year is being called off. He did not need to.

All he did was remind his audience that it was conceived under different conditions than those that now prevail and the wry look on the face of the Housing Secretary, Dominic Wong Shing-wah, as he said this was enough to tell everyone that some soul-searching had taken place in the senior ranks of government.

When he said the Government remained fully committed to providing public rental housing for those in genuine need one has the impression that the word 'genuine' was there for a reason.

People who park BMWs outside public rental flats had best consider buying their own homes in future.

Similarly, the fact Mr Wong and his staff have been directed to hold wide-ranging consultations with developers and bankers, among others, confirms that a change of course on Home Ownership Scheme housing is being considered.

It is the more common practice around the world to help those in dire need of housing by direct subsidies and by creating the conditions for the private sector to respond to the need rather than by direct government efforts to build and manage housing. Mr Tung is now apparently considering such things.

One also reads some dissatisfaction with the advice he has so far been given by the civil service into his measures to establish an international council of advisers and to contract out some civil service functions.

It will do us no harm if occasionally some experienced foreign dignitary is asked what he thinks of proposals put forward by government functionaries and has the opportunity to say: 'Well, we tried that at home and it didn't work and here are the reasons why.' But Mr Tung is proceeding a little more softly now than he did when he first stepped into the job.

He had many kind words for the civil service and couched his phrasing delicately when warning that pay for entry-level civil service positions, which is well above private-sector levels, may witness some cuts.

He is testing the waters more than he did initially, and this has to be all for the good. Hong Kong is at a crossroads in its development, what with its economy reeling from a general Asian financial crisis, and there can be no blithe assumption it will emerge from this crisis with things proceeding in the good old-fashioned way they always have done.

However bright and dedicated the executive or the civil service, no one can confidently claim to have the answers to all the questions that now pose themselves. It requires a much greater degree of public debate than has hitherto taken place, a cautious probing of the way forward with help from free markets.

Mr Tung did not say all of this outright. He is making the transition to politician from shipping magnate and is now trying to bring along with him a civil service that has a traditional interventionist bent for all of its trumpeting of 'positive non-interventionism'. Older colonial ways of doing things did not change overnight on June 30 last year.

But this columnist has to admit he was pleasantly surprised. It was a solid speech addressing everyday concerns like sewage, air pollution and hospital dispensaries while also touching on longer-term concepts of just where society is heading.

If it dealt with some of these obliquely, so be it. Mr Tung has at least given notice of a government recognition that things have not gone as well as they might in all areas, and that in key policy matters such as housing, there will be a rethinking of direction.