No experience needed to be a good leader

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2007, 12:00am

With Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen elected for another term, all eyes are on his choice of accountable bureau chiefs, in particular the new chief secretary. Many pundits have speculated that whoever gets this post will be the hottest candidate for the 2012 chief executive election.

In 1997, when businessman Tung Chee-hwa became the first chief executive of the special administrative region, experts believed that all future Hong Kong leaders would come from commercial circles. The argument was that businessmen know how to run the economy, and the economy is what makes Hong Kong tick.

Later, people realised that running an economy is different from running a business. Many then subscribed to the idea that Hong Kong used to be successfully run by bureaucrats and this magical formula should be repeated. Mr Tsang's success has only reinforced this notion. The rationale is simple: bureaucrats know how to run the government machinery and, therefore, to dispense good governance. Good governance is what makes Hong Kong tick.

Following this seemingly impeccable logic, aspirants for the top job should have at least some administrative experience within the bureaucracy. Mr Tsang's challenger, Alan Leong Kah-kit, for example, was ridiculed for not having such experience. With this rationale, it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that the chief secretary is next in line for the chief executive job.

Let us look around. Does Arnold Schwarzenegger have any previous administrative experience to qualify him to be the governor of California? No, and he is now in his second term, as is US President George W. Bush. Being president of some 300 million people is surely more demanding than being chief executive of 7 million, yet Mr Bush was elected with little previous administrative experience. The lesson is that in a western democracy and, in Hong Kong - a quasi democracy - anything can happen. Before you know it, 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung might be in the chief executive's seat, and some will praise this as the beauty of democracy. If our civil service is as good as many would believe, it does not matter who is at the helm.

It is not my intention here to argue for or against democracy; only to show that administrative, and business, experience is irrelevant to being a good chief executive. Once this is established, we need not read too much into the chief secretary post. Admittedly, it is a very important job, but that is all there is to it.

The chief secretary may or may not be the next chief executive. It depends on the person. Does he or she want to be chief executive? We cannot assume that everybody wants the job. Rafael Hui Si-yan apparently does not. Five years is a long time and many things can happen in the interim. The person might change his or her mind, or even get derailed. Who knows? In a democracy, anything can happen. Our chief secretary might have to face a strong contender who may convince the electorate that administrative experience means nothing.

Keeping the chief secretary's role as simply that will make Mr Tsang's choice easy. He will only have to pick a capable deputy. It will also make it easier for the candidate to accept the appointment: he or she will not have to think in terms of being the next chief executive, too. Once appointed, the new chief secretary will have to concentrate only on doing a good job, and people's expectations will be geared likewise.

As for the next chief executive, a good one can come from anywhere. We may need a good administrator now, but we may need some other talent in the future. There is no fixed formula for success, and as the great Deng Xiaoping used to say: 'It does not matter whether it is a black cat or a white cat. As long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.' Let's go and find some good cats.

Lau Nai-keung is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate