Minister deserved a more auspicious start

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 October, 2004, 12:00am

The new health chief was finally installed yesterday. He will have one of the toughest jobs in Hong Kong, so it is disappointing that the government could not even announce his appointment without making an embarrassing blunder.

The hasty postponement on Thursday of the announcement of his appointment - only for it to be made yesterday instead - does not inspire confidence in the process by which the new minister has been picked. Nor does it get York Chow Yat-ngok off to the best start. We wish him well. Surely things can only get better.

The events of Thursday afternoon were a classic example of official mismanagement and poor public relations. About 4pm, the media was informed that a press conference had been arranged for 5.30pm that day. But an hour later, it was cancelled.

The problem appears to have been a lack of communication with Beijing. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa expected the central government to formally confirm its approval of the appointment in time for the press conference. But the all-important documentation did not arrive as quickly as had been expected.

This blunder raises worrying questions about the administration's ability to communicate with Beijing. If our officials can mess up something as simple as this, how are they going to fare when tougher communication problems arise - such as another Sars outbreak?

It is no good trying to blame the mainland. There was one very simple way in which Hong Kong officials could have avoided this farcical situation. All it required was the patience to wait until the documentation had actually been received. Surprisingly, a desire to get the announcement on the 6pm television news seems to have been a factor in convincing officials to jump the gun.

This is not the first time the government has made an error of this kind. A press conference to announce Mr Tung's first ministerial team in 2002 was postponed in similar circumstances. It is astonishing that lessons were not learned.

Three months have passed since Yeoh Eng-kiong resigned as secretary for health, welfare and food. Officials have had plenty of time to prepare for his replacement.

The main reason for the delay has been the difficulty in finding someone willing to occupy what has become one of the hottest seats in government. Dr Chow, the chief executive of Queen Mary Hospital, is an experienced and respected member of the medical profession. He has the right credentials for the job. But he was not the first choice.

It is easy to understand why potential candidates would be unwilling to take up the position. Not many are going to be thrilled at the prospect of serving a lame-duck government. And the contract will be a short one - Mr Tung has less than three years of his term left. But the painful experience of Dr Yeoh - who resigned after strong criticism of the way he handled last year's Sars outbreak - was one of the prime deterrents.

A sword of Damocles hangs over the head of Dr Chow. Should Sars return, or bird flu strike, the pressure will be intense. Welfare is also part of the minister's portfolio. That, too, has become a political hot potato - although Dr Chow appears to be relishing this particular challenge.

Mr Tung limited the field of candidates by insisting that the new health chief be a doctor. There is some sense in this, as it will be easier for someone from within the medical profession to command respect and to maintain public confidence should another infectious disease hit Hong Kong. But the two medical men who are already established members of Mr Tung's team were apparently not enthusiastic about taking on the job.

Dr Chow deserves credit for being prepared to put himself in the line of fire. Many challenges await him. It is a pity that, through no fault of his own, his appointment got off to such an uncertain start.