Fanny Law's exit adds to turbulence
For any career civil servant who has spent the best part of their life in public service, it is not easy to resign at a peak in their career.
And for Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, known for her commitment and passion for trying to get things done, a premature departure in the midst of criticism over her interference with academic freedom can hardly be a happy ending.
This is despite her insistence in an open letter that she had no regrets about her resignation.
'What I still have is a feeling of concern. When a leaf falls onto the ground, you know autumn is near. For all civil servants who stick to the principles of serving public interest and doing their job fearlessly, is what happened to me today telling their tomorrow?
'If my departure could stimulate discussion and reflection on the unhealthy political situation in Hong Kong, this could be my last contribution as a civil servant,' she said.
Mrs Law, who will stand down as head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and quit the government on July 1, issued her open letter on Wednesday.
It followed the release of findings by a government-appointed independent inquiry into allegations of official meddling in the work of academics at the Institute of Education. The report found Mrs Law had interfered with the academic freedom of two HKIEd academics when she was permanent secretary for education and manpower.
Once widely seen as a high-flier among administrative officers, Mrs Law has become the first civil servant to stand down in the wake of political controversy, following the introduction of accountability system in 2002.
As the administration prepares for a reshuffle, her resignation and warning have understandably caused a stir.
This is probably not because her colleagues believe she did nothing inappropriate. Based on evidence given at the hearing, there is no denying Mrs Law could have been more sensitive about remarks that might have been perceived as pressure by the academics to whom she talked.
If her case sent shivers down the spines of senior civil servants, it was because they fear an increasingly tough, unpredictable and hostile political climate, which makes it even more difficult for dedicated people to serve society through public service.
Putting aside the question of who said what and in what context among people involved in the HKIEd controversy, there is no doubting an air of mutual mistrust and suspicion has engulfed the relationship between government and the higher education sector and government and society at large.
Rightly or wrongly, top government officials have been seen by some quarters of the education sector as being driven by personal or political agendas in their pursuit of education reform.
The education sector, meanwhile, has been dismissed by officials as a mountain of vested interests which can never be converted to become a partner of government in reform.
Worse still, it was not possible to defuse the tension between the government and education system through a political process transparent to the public. Instead, the issue was allowed to grow and poison the atmosphere, in which some insensitive remarks sparked fears about government high-handedness in forcing changes upon the HKIEd.
True, the HKIEd controversy could be attributed in part to a clash between individuals who hold different interests. That some inappropriate remarks precipitated a political storm says something about the malfunctioning political system and highly-charged socio-political environment.
Some may say the best way to avoid the heat is to leave the kitchen. But when the kitchen is on fire, not only will the vulnerable go but those with the passion to venture into politics will be deterred.