When Tsang's dream became a nightmare

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am

With possible candidates for the next chief executive on their 'unofficial' campaigns, some have begun calling the one still in office a lame duck, which is especially worrisome since Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is still not even halfway through his second term. Surely, Hong Kong can ill afford an idling government until 2012.

Recalling Tsang's first policy address, in 2005, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the 'strong governance' he promised; by the look of things today, there is almost nothing 'strong' about our government.

When Tsang took over, he inherited a deeply entrenched public distrust that was the legacy of his predecessor. But Tsang's formula - running Hong Kong by what was considered an efficient and effective civil service - to regain the public's trust in the government, hasn't worked.

The problem is not the sales pitch, which sounded quite sensible to the public and Beijing at the time. Tsang's problems began with the Leung Chin-man controversy; since Leung, the government has been marred by issues of internal strife, political hiccups and civil service blunders - calling not only the government's intentions, but also its ability to govern and handle the city's day-to-day business, into question.

But with more than two years remaining, Tsang must get back to the work he first promised the people of Hong Kong. He is dealing with a sophisticated populace, which knows what to look for and has a growing sense of the kind of leader they want. Taking a back seat now will only exacerbate the mistrust that has surfaced; Tsang has to turn challenges into opportunities to redeem his government.

This will involve some soul-searching on the chief executive's part and he must come to terms with the need to level with the people. Gone are the days when governments can operate as a black box. The public today is much more critical of a government that withholds information from them (whether those suspicions are justified or merely perceived).

The current anguish over the high-speed Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong rail link is not necessarily about its ballooning budget. The uncovering of the Guangzhou station's 'hardly-Guangzhou' location made the public suspicious that it may be yet another project that is not what the government claims it to be. A government that forces the public to second-guess its every move cannot boast strong governance.

Tsang must also understand the gulf he has developed with the people. At times, it seems the government speaks a language we can hardly understand. If dreams really are the windows to our souls, then that explains why it was so disheartening to hear the chief executive talk about his 'dream' of having a bigger convention centre for Hong Kong. While property is undeniably important to the city's economy, it is a little disturbing that erecting buildings has become the 'stuff' Tsang's dreams are made of. When leaders talk about dreams (think Martin Luther King Jnr), they usually talk about values or hopes, not buildings. We know that 'dreams' are 'built', but literally erecting buildings does not make a government strong. And the public can hardly be asked to share those dreams of lining developers' pockets. We already have the Cyberport eyesore to remind us what those 'dreams' are about.

Tsang would do well to hold on to his older but better dream of leading with strong governance; he must begin by making the government transparent and accountable. It will take a government that does not see the people as enemies from which to hide things. A government that shares its visions, plans, and even missteps, with its people is showing the strong governance we need. A lot of work remains - the people's 'dreams' need to be realised.

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


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