The artful dodgers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 August, 2008, 12:00am

There is, let's face it, always an element of voyeurism in finding out what other people earn. But, when it comes to money paid out of funds derived from taxation or from the donations of citizens, voyeurism combines with a genuine question of accountability. What is dismaying about the South China Morning Post's recent series of articles on the salaries of leading welfare and arts group executives is that the majority of these organisations refuse to disclose what they pay their leaders.

We know what government officials are paid and, thanks to a tightening of disclosure rules by the stock exchange, we have a better idea of payments made to public company executives. But a different standard seems to apply to bodies that rely heavily on government subventions. Yet, the money going to these bodies is no less 'public' than cash devoted to keeping the official bureaucracy afloat.

What is even more troubling about these non-government, yet government-reliant organisations is their seeming inability to understand the essence of public accountability. The Po Leung Kuk, the establishment's charity of choice, which will receive HK$252 million of public funds this year, told the Post that it did not have to disclose its executive director's pay because her salary came from donations, as opposed to government cash.

This excuse is not dissimilar to the two-card tricks used by card sharps who shuffle around a pack of cards in devious ways to win the game. At the end of the day, all this money comes from the public and it is more than disingenuous to start a game of shuffling expenditure from one side of the organisation to the other in order to avoid disclosure.

Meanwhile, a similar weasel-like excuse for secrecy came from the otherwise admirable Chung Ying Theatre group which said that it could keep silent on pay because there was no requirement for disclosure under the terms of its grant from the government.

Other organisations are hiding behind the paper-thin excuse of concerns over the right to privacy. Such an argument has far greater validity in circumstances where public money is not involved, but accountability is the essence of what is known as public service.

Indeed, it may be argued that there is a need for greater disclosure, not just over payments to top of officials of non-government organisations who receive public largesse. There is also a case for having more information about exactly how all public money is spent. A very uneven level of transparency prevails here, with some organisations providing quite detailed accounts of their activities while others provide outlines that beg for further information.

Some of the recalcitrant bodies may feel it is unfair to impose this burden on them because problems with disclosure and transparency are equally evident at the heart of the government bureaucracy. Black holes of non-disclosure are littered in every direction, for example what happened to all the money poured into Disneyland, how will the billions destined for Sichuan be dispersed and will someone please tell us exactly what these new mini-ministers are supposed to do?

The Tsang administration is increasingly reluctant to send senior officials to the Legislative Council to account for government policies. And, as they stay away, the government incessantly whines about obstruction from Legco when questions are raised and full accountability is demanded.

Many public company executives look back with nostalgia to the 'good old days' when their shareholders were expected to collect free lunch boxes at company meetings and otherwise keep quiet. Shareholder activism has forced a far greater degree of accountability and even the vested interests of the stock exchange reluctantly concede that, if Hong Kong is truly to be an international financial centre, it requires a level of transparency on a par with other markets of this kind.

No such pressure for disclosure is seen in so-called voluntary organisations that are quick to solicit funds but become noticeably sluggish in providing details about how much goes into the pockets of those administering them.

The remedy is a presumption of the public's right to know. In some countries, this is entrenched in law and provides considerable access to citizens who want to find out why decisions were made, how much money was spent, and the like.

In Hong Kong, we are far from this state of affairs. The old colonial paternalist attitudes prevail and the most senior officials genuinely believe that disclosure and obstruction are synonymous terms. 'Trust us to do the right thing,' they cry. 'We don't want to bother you with complex details,' they mutter patronisingly. And that is why the words: 'trust me, I'm a civil servant' can only be uttered these days with a twinkle in the eye and a strong sense of the absurd.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur