The finest civil servants that money can buy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am

The Leung Chin-man saga was a hot topic in the recent Legislative Council election television debates. It has caused much concern, and reflected the neglect on the part of the Tung and Tsang administrations, which have done nothing in response to the spreading perception of collusion between top civil servants and big business groups.

Several years ago, a popular saying emerged on the mainland: in the past, tycoons were eager to please senior cadres, now it is the other way round.

Apparently this applies to Hong Kong, too.

Under British rule, senior civil servants were offered attractive packages comparable with that for senior corporate executives. The former enjoyed lifelong pensions and respectability. As a rule, chief secretaries and financial secretaries were given knighthoods; bureau chiefs, CBEs; and department heads, OBEs, when they approached retirement.

Such arrangements were designed to discourage senior civil servants from accepting full-paid jobs after departing the civil service, a culture fostered among the British and colonial civil servants. Today the younger generation of Hong Kong's senior civil servants can expect only contributory, lump-sum payments at the end of their careers; and their financial remuneration as well as social status have been in relative decline compared with senior corporate executives. Hence, the temptation to join the corporate world after retirement has been on the rise.

Comparisons with Japan and America may be interesting. Since the war, political power in Japan has largely remained in the hands of the triumvirate among the governing Liberal Democratic Party, the bureaucracy and the keiretsu (business conglomerates). Close ties between the bureaucracy and keiretsu were generally accepted by the people.

Senior civil servants in Japan retire early, in their late 40s or early 50s, to encourage broad changes, and they then go onto a second career with the major corporations. Civil service pay is quite low in Japan, and retirement benefits are limited. Earning a high salary in the business world after retirement is perceived as a kind of compensation and is broadly accepted; at the same time, government support and guidance for the keiretsu are also accepted.

In the US, there are many political appointments at the upper echelons of the government bureaucracy. American political culture endorses entry into public service by the business elite, and they also believe it is their duty to serve the public.

Public sector remuneration is substantially lower than that of the corporate world. Obviously, the experience and networks gained in government service will be valuable assets to subsequent business careers. Big business promotes its causes through lobbying of government, and these lobbying activities, in turn, are monitored by the media.

In Hong Kong, the existing mechanism of vetting senior civil servants' employment after retirement is inadequate and outdated. The introduction of political appointees has brought up a new set of issues, as many appointees are expected to join major business groups after leaving the government. However, the administration had not been prepared to act before the recent uproar.

In the first place, there must be a much stricter guarantee against potential conflicts of interest. The period of regulation must be extended. The vetting mechanism should be removed from the hands of principal officials, with stronger participation by community leaders, including members of the judiciary and legislators outside the establishment.

As major business groups become more influential, concern about collusion between the government and big business will grow. One bad omen is the appointment, in recent years, of family members of people from major corporations to various government advisory bodies.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong