Donald Tsang

HK needs legitimate leaders, bold decisions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 February, 2009, 12:00am

Inaction and inertia are the price Hong Kong pays for government without popular mandate. Too often, the administration finds it safer to do nothing than take the political risk of doing something that most people agree is right, but that may arouse suspicions of foul play.

Movie star Jackie Chan, who spent 10 fruitless years trying to interest the government in his offer to buy suitable land for an exhibition of his antique houses, is a victim of such a malaise. Now that the Singaporean government, according to Chan, has offered to bear all the costs of securing the collection for the island state, it seems Hong Kong might yet be interested after all. Tourism officials have discussed it with Chan with a view to taking it up with the Lands Department.

Loss of such heritage would be a wrong. Hong Kong would also be making a fool of itself if tourists and fans wanting to visit the locally born and bred kung fu star's museum had to go to Singapore. It remains to be seen, however, if the government will put it right. There are rigid rules to ensure public land must be put up for auction to ensure fairness and transparency, and they are introduced for good reasons to prevent abuse and nepotism. The question is how, for compelling reasons, they could be legitimately circumvented for a good cause.

Interest from the Singapore government is a wake-up call. Hong Kong needs a process for handling matters like this in an objective way that gives worthy ideas a reasonable chance. Decisions reached would not always please everyone, but they would be defensible.

Sadly, the bureaucratic mentality of doing nothing wrong rather than something right may have even affected areas where pecuniary interests are not an issue. Former permanent secretary for education Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun's application to work for a non-profit-making body is a case in point. The government has barred her from taking up employment in an education-related field until August 2011 to avoid perceived conflict of interest. As a result, she has given up her appointment as chief executive of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, a charity which also runs schools.

The government's decision comes amid a public consultation on post-service employment of civil servants, following a political storm over approval for a former housing chief taking a top job with a big developer. But the Tung Wah Group does not provide educational services for profit. Mrs Law left her education post more than two years ago and a perception of potential conflict of interest looks a bit of a stretch. Barring her from education-related employment until August 2011 is certainly over the top, especially because there were precedents of former education officials running schools.

Rejecting Mrs Law's bid to work for Tung Wah smacks of political correctness. She now has to pay the price for an immature political system that results in the government not wanting to risk being seen to have done something wrong. The committee that reviewed post-service employment rules defines the issue sensibly in a recently released consultation paper: a balance needs to be struck in the public interest between tapping the experience and expertise of former senior civil servants for the benefit of the community, and addressing concerns over potential or perceived conflict of interest. The ban on Mrs Law appears to fail that test.

For the sake of Hong Kong's long-term interest, we need a political system that produces legitimate leaders who have the confidence to make bold decisions that are in the public interest.