The ideal minister

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 July, 2004, 12:00am

Although the report by the Legislative Council's select committee on Sars does not call for the resignation of key officials, the inevitable has occurred. Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong has resigned to 'bring a closure to this painful episode'.

There was no doubt that Dr Yeoh and his colleagues gave their very best last year in fighting the new and mysterious epidemic that was Sars. Whatever he did, however, could not ease the pain of the families and relatives of the 299 victims who died in the Hong Kong outbreak.

What doomed him was his ill-advised outburst at one stage that there was no outbreak of atypical pneumonia in the community. Soon afterwards, he was proved wrong, as hundreds of residents at the Amoy Gardens estate were taken ill. To make matters worse, the Malaysian-born doctor's painstaking attempt to explain the mysterious disease backfired. His language was too technical and his imperfect Cantonese confused the public.

The question that Hong Kong faces now is who would dare take up the challenge of joining a weak administration, led by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and filling a post with a portfolio that embraces three broad areas. Technically, the person does not have to be a doctor, although the medics have expressed a wish to have one of their kind replace Dr Yeoh. While Dr Yeoh's professional background and intricate knowledge of public hospitals obviously helped him master the health brief, we must not forget that the job is essentially a political one, and has been filled for many years by administrative officers. Overseas, many health ministers are not doctors.

In fact, there has long been a body of opinion within the administration which holds that the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau has become too large and the workload of the minister too onerous. While health and food are related briefs, the same cannot be said of welfare, which is principally about the provision of social security and welfare services.

Dr Yeoh is understood to think welfare should become a separate brief, and that some other briefs, such as women's issues, should go to the Home Affairs Department. Others feel it is time that a non-medic filled the post to take on the behemoth that is the Hospital Authority, which has long been regarded as Dr Yeoh's power base. He was its first chief executive, and the incumbent chief was a close colleague.

However, at a time when Mr Tung's biggest headache is finding someone prepared to join his cabinet, the business of tidying up the bureau's portfolios would seem to be of secondary importance.

Mr Tung's first batch of ministers has had a high casualty rate. Over a two-year period, he has lost three cabinet members, all of whom had spent years climbing the career ladder, only to fall from grace overnight. Some would say the public verdicts on them were too harsh, and Mr Tung's hesitation to let them go at the most opportune time may have compromised their prospects for staging a comeback.

Yet, there is certainly no turning back for Hong Kong. With increasing democratisation, the accountability system has to be the way forward. Hong Kong needs a dedicated team of professional politicians willing to serve the citizenry to the best of their ability and be prepared to take responsibility for their lapses.

But equally important is the development of a healthy political system in which politicians would be checked by their own ambitions as well as the prospect of their own demise. Sadly, we will not have that until and unless the rules are changed so that one batch of politicians is not permanently confined to the role of an opposition who can only bark but not reign.

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy