Donald Tsang

Officials need to be a cut above the rest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2009, 12:00am

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was stating the obvious when he said that a pay cut by the chief executive and his team would help little to bolster the economy. Mr Tsang was responding to a call by a student on Saturday at an RTHK forum on his upcoming budget.

The student said the leaders should take the initiative with a gesture of solidarity during these difficult times by slashing their pay 20 per cent.

Such a reduction by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his principal officials would save about HK$16 million a year. Total annual public spending is about HK$200 billion.

It is equally obvious, nevertheless, that the effect of a pay cut in times of adversity by the top echelon in Hong Kong, like in other places, would be purely political.

The crux of the matter is therefore whether the initiative would bring political benefits to the government and society as a whole.

Compared with the magnitude of other problems on his plate, there is no denying that the issue ranks low on the financial chief's priority list. Among other things, John Tsang will have to make an educated guess about the economic scene at the global, regional and local level.

Amid grave economic and fiscal uncertainty, he needs to deliver short-term measures to lessen the pain for the most vulnerable groups during the economic meltdown.

At the same time, expectations are high for him to map out medium- and long-term strategies for the city to scale new heights once the bad times are behind us.

John Tsang is known for his rational thinking and no-frills style, typical of the elitist group of administrative officers, so it is not surprising that he has grave reservations about the idea of a pay cut. A career civil servant who became a political appointee in 2002, he is sure to have dismissed the idea as a political gimmick that doesn't stand up to rational analysis.

Though true, it is also obvious that politics is about both style and substance. Indeed, in certain circumstances, style has proved to be more important than substance.

Aside from a raft of difficult economic and fiscal issues, the financial secretary is faced with the equally arduous challenge of managing the public mood.

With warnings from top government and monetary officials that the economic crisis will get worse before it gets better, the fear factor has severely dented public confidence and deepened the downbeat mood.

While hoping that the government can deliver the best possible economic and fiscal measures in the budget, people will attach no less importance to officials' attitude and approach in handling the financial plan.

True, there has been no strong public pressure so far for the top team to take a pay cut. This is largely because the government has indicated it has no intention of digging into people's pockets, although it seems certain that it will face a huge budget deficit next year.

Against that background, top officials are unlikely to be strongly criticised for ignoring calls to initiate a pay cut.

Barring an unexpected groundswell of public anger, political parties will also prefer to keep their heads down. After all, pressure would mount for lawmakers to follow suit if the chief executive and principal officials took the initiative.

The likelihood that the pay-cut issue will become a burning issue looks slim, at least for now.

But, instead of making themselves vulnerable to the volatility of public opinion, it would be politically wise for Donald Tsang and his team to abandon their reactive mode and instead seize every opportunity to lift people's sentiments by at least keeping the pay-cut option open.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.