Official disconnect

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2011, 12:00am

We are focusing too much on who will become our next chief executive when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen steps down in a little over a year without wondering enough about something even more important. It is whether Hong Kong people can stomach more of the same for another five years from a leader they did not elect. As I have said before, the people have already outgrown our present leaders. Can the next government catch up with the people's way of thinking or will we have another half a decade of the people and their government operating on different wavelengths?

There's now a huge divide between what the people think they want and what the government thinks the people want. Survey findings released last week confirm this - showing a plunge in public confidence in every area of governance. We don't need a survey to tell us that. Most people can already feel it and smell it.

The stench of government failure pervades all the things that matter most to the people - from property prices and pollution to poverty. What the people think the government should do in all these areas is not what the government thinks it should do. This disconnect between the government and the people is more obvious to the people than the government.

What the people want done about high property prices is not what the government wants to do. Worsening air pollution worries the people more than it does the government. The people can feel it and breathe it everywhere they go. But the government tells them air quality has actually improved.

A high-ranking government official admitted to me some months ago that he agreed the government had lost touch with the people. There is no direction, clear purpose, or urge to achieve. Policymakers do not seem to have even basic answers to such crucial questions as what air pollution will be like five years from now or how much of a dent we will have made in fighting poverty.

Some put this down to Tsang having become a lame duck. I do not buy that as the only reason for the lethargic way we are now being governed. Sure, there is no great enthusiasm for new, big and pricey policies that risk roughing up the political waters in Tsang's final year.

But the chief executive is not a lame duck in the real sense. Outgoing elected leaders become lame ducks when power slips from them on the assumption that successors with opposing ideologies could reverse everything they do. But our chief executive is an undemocratically elected leader who heads an executive-led government with vast powers.

The legislature has limited powers and is designed to frustrate the opposition camp's efforts to seriously undermine government policies. We do not have opposition parties with any real chance of being elected chief executive. And our politics are not polarised by ideology. If our chief executive has become a lame duck, it is of his own choosing.

The bigger reason for the gulf between the government and the people is that the two sides now think too differently. The people expect more from the government than the government knows how to deliver. They want new, daring thinking from our leaders as the population greys at one end while a rising younger generation is radicalised by lost hope at the other.

But our leaders are not equipped to act with this new daring. They are unelected bureaucrats-turned-politicians who dare only rule in the old, safe, tried and tested way. Our bureaucratic machinery is such that they simply do not know how to keep pace with the ever-changing thinking of the people. Former security secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, now a legislator, told me recently that she never really understood the people until she ran in the Legislative Council elections.

Names that have emerged of possible candidates to replace Tsang are all from the old order. Can the new leader understand the people without being elected by the people? Will he dare to break from the old way of ruling or will he allow himself to be sucked into the vastness of our unchanging bureaucracy?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster