They also serve

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 July, 1999, 12:00am

The economic turbulence of the past two years has shown that Hong Kong needs to be leaner and fitter if it is to make it back to the top of the international economy league.

That message was reinforced this week not so much by news that the SAR had slipped to third place in the World Economic Forum's Competitiveness ranking, but by the more startling fall from 12th to 21st place in the micro-economic rankings which measure the business and corporate environment.

Wage levels have often been cited as a major factor denting the SAR's international competitiveness and holding back recovery. That makes the prospect of a 30 per cent cut in pay for new recruits to the civil service especially pertinent.

Generous salaries and working conditions have created a civil service that is the envy of the region, both for efficiency and straight dealing. It offers an attractive career for top graduates who, in the absence of a ministerial system, can rise to positions equivalent to those of ministers in other places. But the Government has to move with the deflationary times, and the right place to start is in its own house.

The dilemma is how to achieve this without storing up problems for the future. A policy which would introduce a differential pay scheme for the service is its potential to foment division among the workforce. A percentage cut across the board might have been more even-handed. But, with wide-reaching reforms in the offing proposing performance-related pay and employment contracts, employees are already facing major changes to working conditions.

It is very important that nothing is done to demoralise the service or to make it a less attractive career option. A clean, efficient administration is essential, and this means the continuation of a certain elitism.

Reforms must tread a fine line between economy and the need to retain the goodwill and commitment of the service. That will not be easy but it cannot be avoided.