Short-term visionary

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 December, 2010, 12:00am

Has a year made a difference? Do you think things have changed for the better from a year ago? Last year, at around this time, we were bombarded with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's face on TV. Every few hours he intruded into our living rooms in a government ad, promising to make things better. The ad showed him eavesdropping on people's conversations about what the government should be doing for them. He looks into the camera, assuring everyone he'll listen to their views.

This year's ad slips a bit into silliness, with people donning fake moustaches to mimic him. Again, he says he'll listen to views. Did he listen last year and, if he did, what difference did it make? Will he listen this year? Perhaps a better question is whether he is capable of really understanding the views of ordinary people without a bureaucratic bias. Does he draw up his budget based on what people want or what his bureaucratic mind thinks they want?

Last year, at this time, the people were hurting. The economy hadn't recovered. People wanted quick relief. But they also wanted something more. They wanted imagination from the government. Aside from one-off sweeteners, they wanted something that would give them hope of not having to be hooked on quick relief indefinitely. They didn't get it. There was no imagination from Tsang, only the same tired act of short-term appeasement. which defines the vision of our bureaucrats.

Perhaps Tsang really believes vision is handing out one-off sweeteners, giving handouts year to year to keep the masses happy. The trouble with that is how long can you keep it up? Most of last year's relief measures have already run out. Others are about to end. The people now want another dose. They've become addicted. What's Tsang going to do at his next budget in February? Inject some more sweeteners into them to keep them high for another year? Or will he wean them off with a better alternative?

The government itself has said sweeteners aren't the long-term answer. But it hasn't said what is. I don't think our bureaucrats really know. Or, if they do, they lack the will to proceed. To do that requires a complete turnaround in thinking. It means reshaping the old order, defying vested interests and throwing out the worn guidebook with which our bureaucrats have governed for so long.

But just last week Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen showed how incapable our bureaucrats are of thinking like the people. He couldn't understand why everyone was so angry that the government had allowed a retiring housing chief to work for a property developer. When legislators expressed astonishment that bureaucrats had ignored a red flag in giving the job clearance, he scolded them.

Legislators were simply reflecting public sentiment when they found it incredible that Leung Chin-man was allowed to work for a New World subsidiary even though he had been involved in selling a government housing estate cheaply to a sister company. But Tang retorted that the bureaucrats who cleared the job saw no conflict of interest because Leung would work for a New World mainland firm with no Hong Kong business.

His defiance shows how out of sync our bureaucrats are with public perception of right from wrong. It matters little to the people whether the job involves mainland or Hong Kong business. Leung would still be working for New World. And that legitimately arouses public suspicion the job was a payback for Leung treating New World favourably while in office.

But our bureaucrats were incapable of anticipating such public sentiment. Their rule book says nothing about public perception, only their own. And they saw nothing wrong with a retiring housing chief working for a developer.

Go ahead and give your views to the financial secretary. Sweeteners are fine but explain that you want him to think like you, not like a bureaucrat. Tell him a better alternative to handouts is a shake-up of the old order so that wealth is fairly distributed. See if he'll listen.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster