Donald Tsang

Knowing when to keep quiet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am

The chief executive will leave Hong Kong for a while after he retires, to give his successor more room, he told a newspaper and RTHK this week.

Some have interpreted Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's remarks as a criticism of former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, who has made frequent public comments on government policies since leaving the administration in 2001. His comments are also seen as paving the way for his bid for a second term.

The suspicion that Mr Tsang was trying to embarrass Mrs Chan is unfounded, however: other former senior officials, too, have become involved in politics after leaving office. Her predecessor, Sir David Akers-Jones, for instance, has remained in the limelight.

The post-retirement arrangements of the chief executive and other senior officials have great political significance, and certainly warrant serious discussion.

Heads of western democratic countries usually cease to meddle in government affairs once they step down. Former colonial governors became members of the House of Lords upon completing their terms of office. Even when revisiting Hong Kong years later, they refrained from commenting on local political issues. The last Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten, is no exception.

Even Tung Chee-hwa, now a vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, has been reserved when it comes to Hong Kong's domestic issues since stepping down as chief executive. All citizens, including Mrs Chan, are of course entitled to express their political views. The words and deeds of former senior officials, however, could fuel unnecessary speculation and misunderstandings. It is thus advisable for them to keep a low profile.

Should former top officials want to assume an active role in politics, they should either join a political party or at least make their intentions public. Otherwise, by criticising policies, they undermine the authority of policymakers, which is unfair to their ex-colleagues.

The increasing number of retired civil servants joining the private sector has also raised some eyebrows about government collusion with business. For years, Hong Kong has pursued a policy of fighting corruption and ensuring efficiency in the civil service by paying its bureaucrats well. Public-servant pay is not too high. Indeed, with our high expectations of them, they should be given reasonably attractive packages to enable them to perform their duties without fear or favour.

I therefore oppose the cancellation of the pension system, and have reservations about civil-service reforms carried out in recent years: any policies that harm the morale and confidence of civil servants can only be counterproductive.

With improvements in living conditions and a longer life expectancy, the government should follow the example of North American countries and adjust the retirement age of civil servants from 55 to 65. Retired civil servants should also be encouraged to continue to serve the community by joining non-profit or welfare organisations.

To avoid accusations of government-business collusion, and retired officials receiving 'double pay', the government could contemplate deferring pension payments to those who join the private sector after retirement. Thus, retired civil servants would have greater flexibility to continue to serve the community in other capacities. As far as the disciplined services are concerned, their job security should also be improved to ensure a high-quality service.

Strong governance hinges on a highly efficient civil service, whose members should be paid well to keep up their morale. However, the issue of retired government officials working in the private sector remains a public concern. That needs to be addressed as a separate issue.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator