Donald Tsang

Plethora of platitudes no substitute for leadership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am

Whoever wrote Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's policy address clearly believes that no cliche is too commonplace for repeated use and that even the most trivial of platitudes cannot be overused.

Opportunity is to be sought from adversity, strengths are to emerge from weakness, new heights are to be scaled as we travel towards a new era with the resilience of the people prevailing. Well, well, well, who would have guessed that a job lot of bromides would serve as a plausible substitute for inspirational leadership?

It's a crying shame because people yearn for effective leadership in circumstances that provoke a loss of confidence. Even in the most dire times, as president Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated during America's pre-war depression, soaring rhetoric combined with a flurry of activity can lift sprits. Even leaders incapable of flowery rhetoric can be effective in the manner of much-bruised British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose measured and rhetoric-free pronouncements on the current crisis have been well received.

Mr Tsang, on the other hand, has spent most of the crisis being invisible and, even when his administration came up with quite sensible plans for restoring confidence in the banking system, he left it to his lieutenants to deliver the package, fearing that, if the plan were not to work, he might be blamed.

Therefore, instead of being the public face of the rescue package, as practically every other leader around the world has been, Mr Tsang made sure it was issued a day ahead of his big speech. If all goes well, he will take the credit; if things turn sour, he will shrink back into the shadows, implying a lack of responsibility for the outcome. However, the buck clearly stops at the gates of Government House, even if the chief executive remains holed up inside. This is clearly understood by practically everyone in Hong Kong aside from the members of the bureaucracy from where Mr Tsang was plucked. He still thinks and acts like a bureaucrat.

That is why he was happy to begin his address with a long recitation of the supposed marvels of the government's massive infrastructure programme. Bureaucrats love these programmes because they see them as monuments to their time in office, so-called legacy projects. Such is their love affair with bricks and mortar that Mr Tsang did not seem to notice the irony of repeating the cliche about 'big market, small government' while parading these examples of very large government.

He also rather ruined the small-government show by announcing yet another slew of official bodies to examine everything from the financial crisis to that mysterious thing called 'culture'. In Hong Kong, culture is taken to mean buildings, so the new committee will busy itself with the government's newest legacy project, the much delayed West Kowloon Cultural Whatever.

Here is a leader who has not the slightest idea of how to lead. Mr Tsang proved incapable of even handling a rather predictable political stunt by the savvy stunt-master legislator Leung Kwok-hung, who disrupted the speech before it began by trying to present the chief executive with a banana and challenging him to say how much it cost. Mr Tsang blinked furiously and assumed that special bland face mask that officials learn at bureaucrat school. Any genuine politician could have turned this little show to his advantage with an off-the-cuff joke or even a disparaging remark, but Mr Tsang just can't do anything of that sort.

His speech was shorn of any sign of humanity; there was no sense that he understood or even wanted to understand how financial crises affect ordinary working families. In place of some acknowledgement of the impact all this is having, Mr Tsang was ready with his lists, his committees waiting in the wings, and a series of self-satisfied platitudes about how well we are all doing. The empty limousine has departed with the chief executive sitting on the back seat.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur