Provision of Margaret Chan aide slammed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am

Senior bureaucrat's secondment to Geneva to help in WHO leadership campaign 'sets a bad precedent'

Legislators have hit out at the appointment of a senior civil servant at taxpayers' expense to help former health director Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun get elected as the next director-general of the World Health Organisation.

They said the secondment of senior administrative officer Estrella Cheung King-sing to provide administrative and logistical support to Dr Chan, now a private citizen, set a bad precedent because it meant any other Hongkongers running for top jobs at international agencies should be eligible for the same support.

Officials have refused to say how much Ms Cheung's Geneva posting will cost the government or detail what other related expenses will need to be funded. But based on government pay scales and the duration of the posting - two months and 23 days from Friday until the WHO elects a new chief on November 9 - Dr Chan's aide will cost taxpayers between HK$200,000 and HK$225,000.

Medical sector lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said the government needed to be more transparent when making such decisions.

'I support Dr Chan's candidacy to head the WHO, but if we need to spend public money to do so then I would have my reservations. If it was me running for that post, I would pay for it out of my own pocket,' he said, adding he planned to take the issue to the Legislative Council Finance Committee.

Emily Lau Wai-hing, chairwoman of the committee, said clear criteria should be set out for the government providing such support, while Civic Party legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung called the aide's appointment 'very inappropriate' and suggested it be halted while the Finance Committee and auditor looked into the matter.

Dr Cheung said: 'It opens up the floodgates for other ex-officials needing similar support from the government, and I don't know on what basis we can reject these [future] requests.'

Dr Chan, the WHO's assistant director-general for communicable diseases, is currently on leave from the WHO to run her election campaign and did not respond to requests for comment.

She also could not be reached at the Geneva branch of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, where she has set up her campaign office. Officials there said Dr Chan was travelling but could not say whether it was for personal or official business.

A government spokeswoman said it was agreed to help Dr Chan after she met Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and health chief York Chow Yat-ngok earlier this month. It was not clear whether the help was requested by Dr Chan or was offered unsolicited.

But the chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association, Choi Kin, defended his long-time colleague. 'Speaking in my personal capacity, I think that if Hong Kong wants a Hong Kong citizen to be elected to such a prominent post, something which will improve our own public health system, then such support is justified,' he said, adding Dr Chan would need to travel widely to lobby for the post.

It has been reported in the Chinese media that Dr Chan plans to visit all 34 WHO vote-casting countries to court support.