Fear and failure in halls of power

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 April, 1999, 12:00am

The decision has already been made. Now it is just a matter of deciding when to announce it. Within the next few months another senior civil servant will be demoted.

Of course, it will not be presented in these terms. In bureaucrat-speak, it probably will be portrayed as simply a routine transfer to another posting - one which no longer requires the official in question to act at a higher grade, but does not affect the individual's substantive rank.

Civil service chiefs may even publicly deny it amounts to a demotion, just as they did on a previous occasion. But the affected official will be sent off to a lower-level post, receive a reduced monthly salary, and lose virtually all hope of future promotion. In other words, it will amount to what anyone in the private sector would call a demotion, even if the bureaucrats prefer to use more convoluted language.

These are tough times for anyone working in the Government as old taboos are shattered. Until recently, serving officials could sit back and relax, apparently confident that Tung Chee-hwa's insistence on a radical overhaul of civil service terms and conditions would have little impact on them.

The cut in starting salaries, the scrapping of the generous pension scheme, even the plan to shift most staff from 'jobs for life' to short-term contracts - all these will apply to new recruits. But no one has suggested these should affect those who joined the Government before the changes were announced.

Nor can there be any question of this. Serving civil servants are contractually entitled to their existing terms and conditions until they retire. Any attempt to tamper with these could certainly be challenged in the courts. That may explain the enthusiasm with which many officials have greeted Mr Tung's reforms, thinking there is little danger of being personally affected by them.

But nothing in their contracts protects those who are not doing their jobs properly from being demoted. Instead the problem has been that, until recently, the administration was reluctant to take such drastic action. All too often, promotions were based on the old principle of 'Buggin's turn' where seniority rather than merit was the deciding factor.

The result has been that, while there are many capable senior officials, there are also others who, it is now privately admitted at the highest levels of Government, are not up to their jobs.

Until recently, even the worst performers could feel secure. But not anymore.

The first blow was struck last October, when then director of education Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping was shunted off to a lower-level post running the Regional Services Department, and forced to take a $13,000-a-month pay cut. This came after a series of controversies and reports that Mr Tung was unhappy with her handling of the education portfolio, especially after a perceived bungling of the mother-tongue teaching policy.

By contrast, it is no secret that he has an extremely high regard for her replacement, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fan, who was director of the Chief Executive's Office before the handover and is widely seen as a rising star within Government. In just five months since taking over last November, she has vastly improved the image of the Education Department.

It is this rapid transformation which is now being cited in some quarters as justification for the demotion of another senior official expected within the next few months. If this, too, is successful, no doubt many more will follow.

Those who are competent have nothing to fear.

But those who are not should be quaking in their shoes, now that the system of 'Buggin's turn' is finally beginning to be dismantled.