Civil servants need to get real on pay cuts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2009, 12:00am

When the largest civil service union announced at the 11th hour before the release of the government pay-trend survey last month that it was recommending a pay freeze, to weather the tough times with the rest of the Hong Kong public, no one was fooled. Thus, when the survey results were released, showing that wages in the private sector had all fallen, no one was surprised.

The economic crisis is no joke. Layoffs, pay cuts and the like are happening weekly. A record number of people have applied to defer tax payments. Those who still have a job are thankful to be commuting daily to make a living, albeit a reduced one.

With the unemployment rate high and rising, the nasty economic performance figures released by the government this month are very real - at least for those of us in the private sector.

Civil service union leaders have said 'the public might have an impression that since politically appointed ministers should cut pay, so should the civil servants. That should not be so because it's a political decision taken by political appointees. We are civil servants'.

When people hear such things, they cannot help but wonder whether all the red tape and paper civil servants push around has blinded them to reality. The pangs of this global crisis may not be felt within government offices, but it does not mean that those in the public sector are immune or excused. A shrinking public purse equates to a reduction in wages, and the public reasonably expects it. And there is nothing political about that.

Hong Kong's civil service was once highly regarded in the community; civil servants were recognised as among society's best and brightest. So what, then, has made our public servants hopelessly out of touch with the rest of society?

Many have been quick to pin the blame on political appointees, with undersecretaries and political assistants taking most of the heat, since their very existence is claimed to be the reason for damaged morale in the civil service. While it is all too easy to blame these people for everything and anything, it does not quite explain the real problems plaguing the civil service.

Take the Leung Chin-man controversy, for example. Mr Leung, a model career civil servant, was obviously competent in all his government posts and was probably so good at handling the Hunghom Peninsula housing project that New World China Land handpicked him to head its operations after his retirement. The minister who signed off on his application, Denise Yue Chung-yee, is yet another highly praised career civil servant cum political appointee. This seasoned professional failed to see the connection between the housing project and its developer. It is no wonder that the Leung controversy, and Miss Yue's subsequent negligent handling of his application, raised serious public doubts about the civil service.

Sure, one might see a few bad apples out of a 150,000-strong civil service as rather exceptional. That argument sounds neat and tidy until a falling tree in Stanley and a collapsing gate at a government-run hostel in Hung Hom claimed the lives of two women. Such tragedies mean the problem is not just the negligence of a few individuals, but a systematic failing of a bureaucracy detached from the community and reality.

The initial cold-hearted response of government representatives to the death of cleaner Mabel Lim Tjhung Bwee, who was crushed to death by the faulty iron gate, offended the public; offloading the blame on other government departments did nothing to console the victim's family and friends.

Of course, this is not to say that all public servants in Hong Kong are one and the same. There are still highly effective, efficient officials who care deeply for their work and their role as public servants.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA