Cream of the crop

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong is unique because it never stops changing and evolving. All its changes happen at such a great pace that, if you stop looking for a moment, you can easily find yourself out of step with what's going on around you.

Leading officials are vulnerable to being exposed as out of touch with public sentiment, because they are always in the limelight. In an age of accountability, ministers are under great pressure and cannot afford to put a foot wrong, given the huge expectations that hang on their words and deeds.

One such example is the recent controversy caused by a minister's comment that there was something sinister about the workings of the business world. That, the minister said, was why she chose to become a civil servant some 30 years ago.

She was evoking the ethos of the 1970s, when a stable life was still considered a priority. That mentality had its roots in the first generation of Hongkongers who fled here to escape wars and poverty on the mainland. Their values had a huge influence on people who grew up in the 1970s, even though that was also the time when the economy began to take off and opportunities abounded. While people were eager to grasp those economic opportunities, they did not rank business very highly on the moral level.

The minister's remarks fully reflected the mentality of the 1970s. Indeed, many recall the 1970s as the golden years when elitism was held in high esteem and seldom questioned. The year 1973 is regarded as a 'vintage year' because of the crop of fine graduates produced by the University of Hong Kong, many of whom are current leaders of our community. Interestingly, many of the best graduates from that year did not go into business, but into the civil service. Those who joined the civil service in the 1970s as administrative officers are almost all in top positions. It was a generational thing for the best students to join the government rather than dirtying their hands in the business world.

Only after the accountability system was introduced for top officials did we see businessmen joining the government as ministers. It is fair to say that there have not been many successful political careers built on a brilliant business track record. Former commerce chief Frederick Ma Si-hang had a rough ride in the beginning of his ministerial life, being seen as a slick businessman not fit for a public servant's role. But, when he stepped down recently, he was seen as a fine example of how a businessman could become a great minister. It should be noted that Mr Ma's success is an exception rather than the norm.

The good wishes lavished on Mr Ma when he left office testified to the public's gratitude towards his dedication and service. It proves once again that the public are fair in their judgments. Mr Ma is now enjoying a quiet life nursing his health. But living a quiet life in retirement is not every ex-minister's cup of tea, whatever their success or failure in office.

A few ex-ministers remain active in politics and public affairs. I always think that the best way for them to continue their involvement is to take part in democratic elections. Even though some may find it cynical for those who were previously in the government to embrace democracy, we should give credit to those who dare to put themselves in front of the voters.

A less desirable option for ex-ministers is to become a pundit. It is a tricky position to be in because it inevitably involves commenting on former colleagues and, in some cases, discussing policies that they themselves had a key role in shaping. On the other hand, when old wounds are reopened, they would be expected to be held accountable and answerable.

It is very confusing to wear the opposing hats of a former minister and an impartial commentator. The public find it hard to accept ex-ministers who dodge questions about their past decisions while they criticise the government. It is not easy to be a minister, but it can be even more difficult to be a former one.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator