Hong Kong's second in command must be top-notch

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2011, 12:00am


Announcing that she would not be running for chief executive, legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee claimed that the two top candidates for the post were keen to recruit her to be their chief secretary.

Whether true or not, Ip nevertheless underlined one important concern: who will be the right candidate for the post? No matter who wins the race, the role of chief secretary, who leads the 160,000-strong civil service, is just as important.

The upcoming chief executive election is the last small-circle election of its kind before the implementation of universal suffrage in 2017. For now, our leader is supposed to be chosen by the 1,200 members of the Election Committee. But, in reality, the choice will be made by the central government. So it doesn't matter who is in the top post or whether he has political wisdom or is genuinely committed to serving Hong Kong; he still has no mandate or political legitimacy.

However, the importance of choosing the right chief secretary cannot be underestimated as this person, as second in command, cannot lack political wisdom or political integrity. What he or she does directly affects the well-being of Hong Kong people.

Just look at Stephen Lam Sui-lung, who took over the post of chief secretary after Henry Tang Ying-yen resigned to take part in the chief executive race. Lam is widely viewed as crafty and calculating rather than being committed to the job.

Some of the most unpopular public policies implemented since the handover have been the work of Lam. These include when he was given the task of introducing an expanded political accountability system, which created a group of deputy ministers and political assistants with bloated salaries; the creation of the political reform blueprint; and the yet-to-be resolved political battle over a controversial bill to scrap Legislative Council by-elections. All these policies have caused unnecessary social conflict and polarised the community.

As a result, Lam has long been the least popular government official. The bottom line is that he has always strictly adhered to the central government line to pave his own way to the top of the administration.

He was also director of the handover ceremony and he was the one who placed the then chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang in the middle of a group of top officials and international dignitaries attending the ceremony. That political gesture to accentuate Chan's role proved to be a good career move.

As information co-ordinator and spokesman for the Chief Executive's Office, he got then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to upgrade his position to make it easier for him to operate. Then, as Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, he contributed little but acted mostly as a 'human tape recorder' to repeat verbatim government policies in public. He never seemed to care much about public opinion; he had his eyes only on the chief secretary post.

Earlier this year, Lam underwent an angioplasty to unblock a coronary artery. He arranged a press conference immediately after the surgery in a bid to show his dedication to the job. When Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah underwent the same medical procedure in 2009, he remained low-key about it. Clearly, Lam was trying to win public approval and raise his popularity.

Now Lam is taking a more low-key approach because he knows he is highly unpopular and hopes that, by avoiding the limelight, the public will forgive and forget. Fortunately, the public has not been fooled. According to a recent University of Hong Kong survey, he has had the worst public reception of all chief secretaries since the handover.

Hong Kong people don't have a choice when it comes to selecting the chief executive. But, in terms of choosing the second in command, our next chief executive must take utmost care in appointing his lieutenant, for the sake of the people of Hong Kong, and the integrity of the administration.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk