Donald Tsang

Lai See

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 January, 2011, 12:00am

What taxpayers get for their money

For those of you who may not be aware of it, the Asian Financial Forum (AFF) is the best event of its kind in Asia, according to the Trade Development Council (TDC), which, together with the Hong Kong government, is organising the event.

The forum is now in its fourth year and has as its central theme 'Asia: Reshaping the Global Agenda'. If that gets your pulse racing, be there from January 17 to 18. To make sure it is not overlooked, the TDC organised a press conference yesterday that, it has to be said, was a rather humdrum affair.

The line-up for the press featured Standard Chartered Bank's Benjamin Hung (right), chairman of the AFF steering committee, TDC assistant executive director Raymond Yip and three others. The full organisational firepower of the AFF amounts to a steering committee of 23 along with 13 so-called honorary advisers.

Bizarrely for a press conference, the proceedings kicked off with the TDC's Katherine Chan doing a Q&A with the assembled luminaries. Presumably this was to ensure the right messages were elicited. This included tough questioning along the lines of 'How good do you think the AFF has been in recent years?' 'It's done very well - it's an excellent forum - Asia needs a stronger global voice,' Hung replied, right on message.

After further scintillating exchanges of this nature, the press was finally invited to ask questions. The result was silence - until we asked a few churlish questions about the cost of the event, and why the TDC and the government were staging the event when there were a number of other similar conferences staged by the private sector.

Yip said the TDC would not disclose budget details of individual events, but added: 'Every dollar is worth it in promoting Hong Kong.'

Well, is it indeed? The TDC boasts that it is attracting 1,500 attendees and 370 journalists from 31 countries. Some 30 'selected' journalists are being paid by the TDC to come. But compare the AFF with, for example, the investor forum run by stockbrokers CLSA. This draws 1,500 clients together with another 500 corporate executives - all at no cost to the Hong Kong taxpayer. And it throws in a memorable party to round off the event. Can anyone remember a good party thrown by the TDC?

The AFF organisers claim that it offers a 'star-studded line-up' and a mix of investors, regulators and government that the others do not. This is clearly not the case, but there are swathes of executives from mainland companies.

Indeed, the list of speakers and moderators is strikingly thin on gravitas compared with other forums in town. There's a strong attendance from the government: Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, John Tsang Chun-wah, Norman Chan Tak-lam and Ronald Arculli - who is quasi-government. From the private sector there's Victor Fung Kwok-king and Anthony 'Lexus' Leung, now with Blackstone - not really speakers that have you on the edge of your seat.

Which leads us to the overwhelming question: why is the TDC involved in this business when it is done so successfully by others?

The cynic in us says that since Hong Kong exports very little, the TDC has had to find something to justify its existence. It exists as a pleasant limbo for favoured retired senior civil servants to linger a little longer at the publicly funded gravy train. For the government, it's pure self-promotion - a vanity project.

It leaves you wondering how seriously the government takes the mantra it trots out periodically: 'Big markets, small government.' Our Chief Executive Donald Tsang said in 2006: 'This means that we respond to the needs of the market and do our best to support and promote economic development within the limits of a small government. And the government should not intervene in any sector of the market, which the private sector can sustain on its own.'

Nice work

Graduates looking for a job could do worse than check out City Telecom's management trainee programme.

In an effort to attract the top 1 per cent of graduates, it has increased the value of its salary package by 60 per cent this year. Entrants to its 'CXO of the Future' training programme will this year receive HK$36,000 x 18, which, for those who haven't worked it out already, is HK$54,000 over 12 months.

The company says it attracted 793 applicants last year, but it has upped its package to be able to compete with 'elite administrative officer positions within the Hong Kong SAR Government, global investment banks, tier-one consultancy firms, etc'.

Unfortunately, only two positions are available. Successful candidates will be expected to act as personal assistant to City Telecom chairman Ricky Wong Wai-kay. There's never a free lunch.