Seeking masters among servants

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


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If officials are to be rated for their willingness to share their insights with the public, Wang Guangya , director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, would score very high points for being forthright and forthcoming.

During a meeting late last month in Beijing with undergraduates from Hong Kong, Wang, who recently spoke on the three criteria for selecting the chief executive, dropped another bombshell by telling the students that Hong Kong had been 'made' and 'marred' by its former colonial master, Britain, and that, although Hong Kong civil servants were good at execution, after the reunification, they did not know how to 'be their own bosses and masters'.

As in the case of Wang's remarks on the three criteria, immediately following his pronouncements, an editorial in Ta Kung Pao and a commentary in the China Daily were published, highlighting that Wang made those remarks as part of his 'high hopes for Hong Kong officials'.

As can be expected, Wang's remarks triggered a melange of conflicting responses: accusations of 'interference' from the pan-democrat camp, protests of unfair depiction from civil service staff associations and expressions of concurrence from some former ministers. The chief executive initially refused to comment, but later made a half-hearted effort to defend the civil service, dodging his own role.

Is it a case of somebody getting a trunk and somebody else getting a leg of an elephant?

As a former civil servant trained in the colonial era, I can't help but concede there is more than a germ of truth in Wang's remarks.

Looking back at the most tumultuous episodes in the past 40 years or so, I cannot name a single landmark decision that was taken by local civil servants, rather than our colonial masters - whether it be the decision to ride out the Cultural Revolution-inspired riots in the 1960s; to end the 'touch base' policy to repatriate all illegal immigrants from mainland China; to adhere to the unpopular 'port of first asylum policy' to proffer shelter to tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon; to launch the British nationality scheme in Hong Kong in the early 1990s in the wake of jitters about the city's future; to quietly usher in representative democracy in the name of 'district administration' in the 1980s, and then to accelerate the pace, especially after the arrival of former governor Chris Patten in 1992, culminating in a historic row with China on Hong Kong's constitutional reform right up to the handover.

Add to that the agonising and tantalising Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong in the 1980s - I cannot recall a single initiative which was not led by the British masters, with the locals playing a vital but principally supporting role.

Not that the locals were necessarily dumber, but, the fact is, at that time few locals had reached sufficiently senior positions to exert groundbreaking influence.

Can you blame the locals if, as Tennyson had described of the light brigade, they were brought up in the tradition of obedience and execution - 'theirs not to reason why' and 'theirs but to do and die'?

I cannot agree more also with the staff associations that Wang may be guilty of blaming an apple for not being an orange.

Indeed, if you were running Hong Kong, albeit a prosperous colony, in the image of the sovereign power, would you want your local subordinates to have visions of a different world order, and the courage to gainsay their masters?

Civil servants are not made of the mettle of revolutionaries or visionaries. Indeed, most (including myself) chose the civil service because of the promise of a decent package and security of tenure. On recruitment, we were reminded that if we wanted to get fabulously rich, we shouldn't join the administrative service.

But if you want to find a satisfying career with plenty of opportunities to serve your community in the most challenging of times, the administrative service, which is the linchpin between the highest, decision-making layer and the underpinning, executive, professional and technical strata, would be the career of choice.

And most of us were brought up in the tradition of 'small government, big market', 'laissez-faire, market-led' economic doctrine, so much so that few had any inkling about how to formulate developmental strategies to restructure the economy through much greater government leadership and policy activism.

On the political front, judging from the performance of civil servants-turned-ministers in the chief executive's 'Act Now' campaign to promote the government's constitutional reform proposals last year, few have made the transition to becoming politicians in ways befitting leaders of a modern, democratic society.

So civil servants at the highest level have fallen short on both counts - long-term planning to increase the competitiveness of the economy, and political management.

As the commentary in China Daily urges, 'The chief executive and heads of policy departments must set an example in this respect.'

But as neither British training nor experiments with 'a high level of autonomy' within the SAR government in the past 14 years have proved adequate, how else would one groom the necessary talent for functioning as Hong Kong's masters, other than venturing down the high-risk, high-sacrifice path of grass-roots democracy?

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