Donald Tsang

A surplus of incompetent leadership

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am


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In another enigmatic moment in Hong Kong's history, post 1997, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah delivered a budget that threatened to unleash the largest mass protest in recent years, while sitting on a fiscal surplus that governments around the world would kill for.

In an embarrassing about-face, Tsang was compelled not only to withdraw his earlier plan of a cash injection into the much-derided Mandatory Provident Fund, but also dish out the largest cash handouts ever, to the tune of over HK$40 billion.

A confluence of factors - widespread public anger, a likely revolt by pro-establishment legislators, plus the spectre of a mass protest at a sensitive time to the central government - probably combined to drive Tsang to cave in. Whatever the reasons, the government's genuflection, following hot on the heels of major concessions to the recently approved Work Incentive Transport Subsidy Scheme, says a lot about the level of competence on the part of the city's top leaders.

The public had good reason to be angry about this year's budget. Despite rising numbers of those who live below the poverty line, there is nothing in there for those 'have-nots' - citizens without public housing, comprehensive social security, or the means for rates, rental and utility payments.

Nor is there any long-term strategy for restructuring our economy or investing in its future. Worse still, there is nothing in it which addresses runaway home prices and soaring commercial rentals.

Days after the delivery of the budget, reports of new launches of homes selling out quickly amid record prices effectively signalled to the public the government's lack of any political will to tackle problems on the property front.

Throughout the budgetary process, Tsang had set high store by his public-engagement exercise, including the use of comics, videos and other new media tools to beef up his image.

Yet, despite all the spin and hype, Tsang and his team have clearly not been listening. Public hostility to another cash injection to the MPF - perceived as offering small comfort for retirees and exploited by greedy fund managers - is so great that any plan to use it again as a platform for assistance is literally 'dead on arrival'.

After his budget delivery, Tsang continued to operate in the old colonial mode, insisting that there was no room for amendment but overlooking the fact that in the new democratic era, when it comes to securing the passage of controversial bills or funding proposals in the legislature, senior officials are truly 'emperors without new clothes'.

Power and authority are largely illusory when government proposals run into public turbulence, and legislators are compelled by election-year politics to stand by their voters.

Add to that perception problems arising from the way Tsang misspoke - again in classic, bureaucratic style - that 'a rich government is the same as rich citizens', or that he disliked sweet corn and garoupa so he had no idea about the price of a plate of rice with garoupa and sweet corn (popular lunch fare for the average man).

Our chauffeur-driven senior officials are so used to being wined and dined in style that they seem completely out of touch with harsh reality.

Finally, make no mistake about who should ultimately be responsible. As it is inconceivable that the financial secretary could have cooked up this insensitive and feckless budget without consultation with his bosses, the budget crisis is the outcome of a collective withering of the will to govern.

But as Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has practically vanished from the scene since the Lunar New Year (other than as a punch bag for angry youths on ceremonial occasions), would you be surprised at the lack of leadership at the very top?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party