One rule does not fit all
In a curious way, we probably all owe a big vote of thanks to the New World Group and former buildings director Leung Chin-man.
In one fell swoop, they have completely destroyed what little credibility remained in the system of monitoring post-retirement employment of civil servants. They may now have forced the community, and especially the Civil Service Bureau, to abandon its obsession with control periods and other irrelevancies and instead focus on the main issue.
Because what we are really dealing with here is corruption, the potential for corruption, and the appearance of corruption potential. The first is of course a criminal offence, the second is a dangerous temptation, and the third, while it is neither of these, is still undesirable because it undermines the reputation of the civil service.
Retired civil servants have a right to work. That right is protected in the Basic Law, the Bill of Rights Ordinance, and international covenants applying to Hong Kong.
It is a disgrace that so many of our legislators, instead of standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens, prefer instead to pander to the prejudices of some and call for a complete ban on post-retirement employment of civil servants.
Be that as it may, the right to work is not an absolute one. But because it is a right, society can only impinge upon it with strong justification. The danger of opening the door to corruption is such an exceptional circumstance, probably the only valid one.
What do we now do, and what ought we to do instead?
What we now do is subject every single retiring senior civil servant to a long control period. After a year's complete ban on working, we require him for a further substantial period to lodge individual applications in respect of each proposed form of employment.
But there are literally thousands of jobs that retired civil servants could do, where the possibility of conflict of interest or corruption simply does not arise. He could finish work in the government on Friday and start in those jobs in the private sector the following Monday.
On the other hand, there are other jobs where an offer of employment - even many years later - would scream out 'potential deferred benefit'.
Our present system of control does not distinguish between these two types of employment. We have adopted a 'one size fits all' approach. So we subject hundreds of perfectly innocent applications to a bureaucratic nightmare, but once the control period has expired, there is no longer any barrier at all.
The New World/Leung Chin-man saga illustrates this perfectly. In the first round of the saga, a New World subsidiary offered Leung a senior position. Incredibly, his application to accept the job was approved, though a subsequent Legislative Council inquiry established - quite correctly - that it should not have been because of his past dealings with the company in his official capacity.
But now Leung's control period has expired, so he no longer requires official approval. While there is no suggestion that New World Group or Leung were involved in any corrupt practices, in what one cannot help feeling is a deliberate thumbing of the nose, another company in the group has offered a similar position to Leung and he has very publicly accepted it.
The current control system is bankrupt. What we need instead is a bespoke system whereby the civil servant is deemed to have the right to undertake any form of employment except a very small number of cases where, because of the working history of that individual, any offer of employment might reasonably give rise to the perception of corruption potential. And the government should tell the individual in writing in advance what those cases are, and impose either a complete ban or a very long exclusion period.
Breach of that restriction should carry with it loss of pension benefits, plus of course the possibility of prosecution under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance.
If that is considered too difficult, maybe there is another alternative. For five years, retired civil servants should be kept on full pay and then taken out and shot. Clear, simple, no need for discretion to be exercised and substantial savings in the longer term. Wildly popular with the public, the media and Legco, and enabling the Civil Service Bureau to achieve a long-held secret ambition.
But, if we go down that route, could we at least start with the ministers.
Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong