No room at the top for pen-pushers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am

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What is it about Hong Kong's top tier of bureaucrats, the administrative officers? Are they so arrogant that they think they know better than anyone how to run businesses and organisations of all sorts? Or is it that their very timidity makes them seek safety in the appointment of fellow bureaucrats whom they know they can rely on not to make waves?

The latest in a long line of top jobs to go to lifelong bureaucrats with no apparent experience in the business concerned is that of Roy Tang Yun-kwong to run RTHK. Can one seriously believe that there was no one from the ranks of business, the media or the creative professions combining administrative experience with familiarity with at least some aspects of broadcasting to get this job? Supposedly the city was scoured yet, in the end, the bureaucrats could only come up with one of their own.

This comes at a time when even Beijing's man here has been so unimpressed with the decision-making prowess of bureaucrats trained in a colonial system that he made his views very public.

Tang's appointment came a few weeks after the General Chamber of Commerce, which supposedly represents a range of business interests, announced that another bureaucrat was to take over as its chief executive, succeeding yet another of that ilk, Alex Fong Chi-wai.

The new CEO is Shirley Yuen, whose last post in government was deputy secretary of the Transport and Housing Bureau. I have no idea what her duties there were but this bureau is clearly responsible for one of the most abject failures of simple decision-making - cross-harbour tunnel tolls. Yuen's colleagues were surely aware that the central tunnel car toll is not only 40 per cent of the western crossing but approximately one third, in real terms, of its level (HK$5) when the tunnel was opened in 1972. Just consider how much unnecessary congestion and pollution has been created by bureaucratic indecision.

It can be difficult to figure out just why this is the case. Is it that the bureaucrats fear the wrath of private car owners who use the tunnel regularly - a tiny proportion of the population? Or of the truck and taxi interests represented in various official and unofficial ways? Is it that the bureaucrats dealing with these issues are like those who, perhaps out of real fear of the consequences, have regularly treated Heung Yee Kuk members as though they were above the law?

Then again, we have a government of bureaucrats who, despite much talk, regularly fail to bring about significant improvements in environmental quality, leaving Hong Kong not just far behind other wealthy societies, but lagging even a still mostly poor mainland in terms of effort.

How can people with well-filled iron rice bowls, yet fearful of making decisions, be entrusted with senior positions outside government?

And we have the example of the Mandatory Provident Fund. At last, under public pressure, there is some trimming of the expense ratios which have meant that the scheme has mainly benefited a few favoured providers. But leadership of the MPF by incompetent bureaucrats with no apparent knowledge of the financial sector, or too much under the influence of a few big names, or too lazy to learn from systems overseas, has resulted in a decade during which intermediaries have ripped off a public forced to save through this system.

Meanwhile, other bureaucrats have been helping themselves to fat new posts created with public money but outside the formal civil service network. One such is the Mortgage Corporation, an arm of the Monetary Authority, an unnecessary creation in the first place and now using its status not only to expand overseas but into new lines of business already served by the private sector. The lack of oversight of the HKMA is scandalous. Yet the institutions which should be making a fuss about this invasion of the private sector remain strangely silent - presumably because they do not want to upset cosy relationships in other directions.

Indeed, another undesirable result of this extension of bureaucrat power is the tightening of links between organisations like the General Chamber of Commerce and the government - a thoroughly undesirable situation from both viewpoints. It should be noted that the chairman of the chamber is Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, who is chairman of the Hospital Authority, a government body, and of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, a body which does indifferent research but is very close to the government. The chamber's deputy chairman is Chow Chung-kong, chief executive of the MTR Corporation.

The chamber's council is also heavily weighted with the property and utility oligopolies that thrive partly thanks to government favours, while the businesses that earn Hong Kong's living as a trading and financial hub, and the myriad small enterprises which pay rent and utility bills, are little represented. No wonder the public believes there is collusion between government and big business.

None of this is to criticise the civil service as a whole. It mostly works smoothly and honestly, and sometimes shows stunning efficiency - the car licensing system, for example, is a model of speed. The problem lies at the top with bureaucrats unwilling to make decisions, and where inter- departmental buck-passing is all too common, and with bureaucrats-turned-politicians who are often more easily swayed by vested than public interests.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator