Leadership qualities in short supply

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2012, 12:00am

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The controversy surrounding chief executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen has deepened after illegal structures were found at two houses owned by him and his wife. Pressured by an aggressive media contingent on Monday, the former chief secretary admitted having built an underground 'storeroom' in one of the properties, and apologised for not taking prompt action to rectify the situation. However, many questions remain unanswered. Has Tang sought to mislead the media? Is there a cover-up? The saga has swiftly escalated into a crisis, with Tang's integrity being called into question.

Regrettably, Tang has given the impression that he has not been open and frank. He first denied having an underground wine cellar at his house when asked by a reporter in October. He later confirmed that a vacant property owned by his family next door had an unauthorised underground storeroom. But he denied any cover-up, saying he had misunderstood the question, thinking it concerned his live-in property, which has an illegal car park canopy.

Tang appears to have been economical with the truth. Serious doubts remain about whether he dodged responsibility to take action to rectify the situation even after Donald Tsang Yam-kuen ordered his team to look into their properties during a government crackdown on illegal structures last May. When asked if he had lied to the chief executive, Tang argued the team had not been required to report back. Yesterday he admitted negligence but denied a cover-up or deception.

Tang had already stirred an outcry recently when he expressed sympathy for illegal structures in the New Territories. This case involving his own properties deepens worries about enforcement if he becomes chief executive. Integrity is of paramount importance to a political leader. It will be difficult for a leader to command public trust if he is found to have tried to cover up his own failings.

Equally disturbing is the way the government responded. The brief statement confirming there was no need for officials to report back on the illegal structures is in stark contrast to the detailed press release issued on the conflict-of-interest affair involving Leung Chun-ying when he was a member of the jury of the West Kowloon Cultural District design competition. The government denied taking sides but rejected Leung's call to disclose all documents for public scrutiny.

The election is just six weeks away but has degenerated into ugly mud-slinging. We need a clean election based on candidates' leadership, vision and platforms.

But we also need a man of quality. Tang said on Monday that 'as a man, one needs to have shoulders and as a public officer, one needs to have backbone'. That's true, but Hong Kong also needs a chief executive with integrity and honesty.