Local hero

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am

The biggest change in Hong Kong's political system after the handover was the introduction of the principal officials accountability system (or ministerial system). But the system, started by Tung Chee-hwa during his second term as chief executive, has had a bumpy ride. Many of those parachuted into high government positions either resigned in mid-term amid controversy, or failed to survive into the city's third administration.

Only three remain in power: Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, health chief York Chow Yat-ngok and commerce boss Frederick Ma Si-hang. Mr Ma's rise is worth dwelling upon; it is equally, if not more, noteworthy than the oft-celebrated success story of another self-made native son, Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung. Born in the 1950s into a low-income family, Mr Ma was not an A-grade student at an elite school. But his fate changed when an uncle stepped forward and financed his studies at the University of Hong Kong, where he majored in economics and history. Again, he was not a top student at university, graduating with third-class honours in 1973 and joining the business sector.

His fate changed again in July 2002 when he followed his close friend, Antony Leung Kam-chung, to join the second Tung administration as secretary for financial services and the treasury. Mr Ma was not a popular figure, early on. The media and opinion leaders stereotyped him as a money-minded, vulgar businessman.

Mr Ma tripped in the first month of his budding political career. The financial community and investors were angered when Hong Kong stock prices tumbled, after the exchange proposed to delist shares that traded below 50 cents for 30 consecutive trading days. Mr Ma didn't help himself by saying he was new to the job and had not read all the documents in his in tray. That sparked a public outcry and calls for his resignation. As his approval ratings sank to the bottom of the league tables, Mr Ma offered a public and unreserved apology to save his skin and his job.

Looking back on it now, Mr Ma's apology was genuine indeed. Later, we came to understand that the penny stock crisis was the result of his initial disconnect with the civil servants working under him. But Mr Ma bounced back through sheer hard work and dedication to his job. His able manoeuvring skills, honed during his long years in the business world, enabled him to rebuild relationships inside and outside government. Now he has the respect of his government colleagues, enjoys a good relationship with the media and his popularity ratings are rising.

In Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's government, Mr Ma is secretary for commerce and economic development. In the Legislative Council, he has handled critical questions about the government's investment in Disneyland with quick wit and dignity, winning much praise. Even the pan-democrats don't give him a hard time.

Interestingly, Mr Ma made some sarcastic remarks about the recent election of former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang to a Legco seat. But he was not criticised harshly for it, as was Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing for making similar comments. This is a telling difference.

Mr Ma's smooth sail in Legco is a result of his years of hard work and deep understanding of politics and governance in Hong Kong's environment.

Well balanced emotionally, and exceptionally able to deal with adversity, he is one of the most outstanding members of the current administration. Another crisis like the penny stock debacle on his watch is unimaginable.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was asked recently to compare the two chief executives. He responded by saying that he preferred to focus on ideas rather than people. Indeed, people's actions testify to their ideas and mentality.

Mr Ma exemplifies the best qualities that a good principal official should have: dedication, dignity and commitment. As the government expands the political appointment system, Mr Ma is the role model that aspirants should look to.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator