Flip side to controversy over Leung Chin-man
Everyone has the right to choose their occupation, and the city's 160,000 civil servants are no exception. Many exercise their right to leave government service for better opportunities in the private sector. After retirement, they are also entitled to continue serving the community in a different capacity if they so wish. But this freedom is not unconditional. Civil servants, especially high-ranking ones, have access to sensitive and confidential information during the policymaking process. Their decisions affect different sectors in society. It is therefore important that they are seen as discharging their public duties without fear or favour. And if they start another job when they leave the civil service, there should be robust safeguards against officials transferring any unfair advantage to the new employer. This assists in preserving the level playing field that is so important to Hong Kong.
But recent incidents have proved that the long-standing mechanism for former officials applying to work again has not struck the right balance between the individual's right to work and the public interest. In 2008, retired housing chief Leung Chin-man angered the public when he was offered a job by a subsidiary of New World Development, a move some described as a deferred reward for his role in the sale of a government-subsidised housing project to a joint venture involving the property giant at a price critics say was below the market price.
While officials have yet to act on proposals to tighten the restrictions on post-service jobs almost three years after the incident, citing concerns that the constitutional protection of an individual's right to work would be unduly curbed, they were recently reminded of the potential for conflict when Leung took up a consultancy job at a jewellery store chain owned by the same group. The Civil Service Bureau was powerless to take further action as Leung's 'control period' - during which he has to seek approval for post-retirement job - has lapsed. It is clear that no rules have been breached this time, but a curious public may well question why Leung, a retired administrative officer, has become the developer's choice of adviser to a jewellery business.
Now there is evidence that the controversy has seemingly swung the pendulum to the other extreme. An open letter from a retired senior marine official on what he called a 'non-decision' of more than six months on his application to work in the private sector again underlines the typical bureaucratic mindset - do less, err less. The former assistant director of the Marine Department alleges that he has become a victim of the Leung saga in that the bureau has avoided ruling on his application to work for gaming tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun's Shun Tak-China Travel Ship. Unfortunately, the public is not in an informed position to judge if this involves any conflict of interest. This is because the bureau is resorting to the government's traditional response of 'no comment on individual cases' despite the fact that the former official has already gone public with his complaint. This lack of transparency prevents the proper monitoring of the government's performance. If applications involve a clear conflict of interest, the government should take the proper decision to reject them. Where it is less clear, conditions should be imposed on any approval so that the public interest is protected. It is unacceptable that worthy applicants are denied the opportunity to start a new career simply because officials in charge of vetting are too scared to make a decision.