Two trains of thought

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 December, 2010, 12:00am

It is time to ask this question: have we outgrown our government? Have the people progressed further and faster than the ability of our leaders to keep pace? I think they have. But here's the troubling part: it's not so much that the government can't keep up, but that it doesn't know how to. Our leaders seem to have a hard time understanding what the people expect of them. That's why, more and more, it appears as if they are adrift, governing by reacting rather than leading.

It's one thing when a government fails to deliver what the people want. That happens all the time. But it's quite another when a government isn't even sure what the people want it to deliver.

How did we get to this? That's easy. As the people rode a train that gathered speed, especially in the past few years, towards political maturity, their senses sharpened as to what they are entitled to in a free and prosperous society. They acquired a better understanding of how the government should serve them.

But our top bureaucrats - who double as our political leaders - were not on that train. They rode another one that barely moved, allowing them to cling on to their old ways.

What we now have are leaders who are unaware they haven't yet moved out of yesterday trying to lead people who are impatiently rushing into tomorrow.

Barack Obama became US president by tapping into tomorrow's Americans online to show he could identify with them. But do you remember the baffled shock on Transport and Housing Secretary Eva Cheng's face as she sat trapped in her car when young people from the so-called post-1980s generation laid siege to the Legislative Council in January? She couldn't understand why they were so angry about the government lavishing money on a high-speed railway to Guangzhou. Days later, she discovered the wonders of Facebook and tried communicating with them - a hilarious move that only confirmed the government reacts rather than leads.

Take a look at the tired, ageing face of Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung. He looks, lives and breathes bureaucracy. Yet he has the political responsibility to ensure our education system is cutting-edge enough for our children to compete in tomorrow's world. But what do bureaucrats know about cutting-edge?

It's not all their fault, of course. Bureaucrats are not trained to be cutting-edge. They're trained to stick to the book. They're taught that their job is to serve the people with what they think is best for the people, not what the people think is best for them. This worked fine during colonial times, before the people boarded the train to political maturity.

But the widespread public discontent we're now seeing tells us it's no longer working. The people will no longer accept being force-fed by civil servants. This has yet to fully sink into our leaders but they are now at least trying somewhat to accommodate the new reality. The result is a lot of fumbling. Bureaucracy's bible has no guideline on how to think like the people.

That's why our leaders appear lost in handling issues such as unaffordable home prices, the anti-business sentiment, the wealth gap, air pollution and, now, the backlash over exorbitant management fees and charges for the Mandatory Provident Fund. The retirement scheme - which heavily favours employers and fund managers at the expense of workers - is just another example of how our leaders simply don't know how to side with the people. On things like high property prices, they react only when the issues blow up in their face, leaving the impression that they are being led by, rather then leading, the people.

It's the price we are paying for the political system we have. Synergy is not possible when a highly democratised public is led by an undemocratically elected government. How can bureaucrats know how to keep up with the people's thinking when they do not have to rely on the people's thinking to keep their jobs, as in the case of elected leaders?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster