A long way to fall

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am


Act contrite, say sorry. That was the script Donald Tsang Yam-kuen followed closely when he went to the legislature to explain himself.

Gone was the look of indignation as he lambasted the news media for challenging his integrity. A humble, almost tearful, Tsang - not the self-righteous, confident chief executive - briefed Legco and faced hostile lawmakers for almost 90 minutes.

In the event, he managed something never achieved before during his seven years as chief executive: he kept 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung and 'Mad Dog' Wong Yuk-man - Legco's disrupters extraordinaire - quietly in their seats. They recognised the historic occasion for what it was, and they kept to their places. So did most of Hong Kong.

Never in the city's history has the head of government had to apologise publicly and explain his private dealings with the tycoons and the upper crust, from storing vintage wines and leasing a luxury penthouse to flying in private jets and catching a ride on a luxury yacht.

Between 3pm and 4pm, thousands stood still and watched intently the giant TV screens at Times Square in Causeway Bay, Chungking Express mall in Tsim Sha Tsui and Broadway Theatre in Mong Kok, riveted by the spectacle of a remorseful chief executive.

'He shouldn't have done it in the first place,' said Waverly Lai, a 22-year-old student watching the screen in Times Square, who believed Tsang had harmed the government's clean image. 'Now it won't help no matter what he does.'

But a forlorn Tsang seemed to be bothered by something else.

'No one will dare invite me to his yacht or his plane after this,' he said, after being asked to disclose the names of tycoons with whom he had private dealings.

It's lonely at the top, and Tsang probably never felt lonelier in his long public career than during his appearance in Legco yesterday. The short journey from his office to the chamber must have felt like an eternity.

As he detailed the favours from the tycoons he received or paid for, Tsang interrupted himself several times, as if he was on the verge of tears. At one point, he took a long pause to compose himself. He lowered his head each time he finished answering a harsh question.

One after another, lawmakers cast doubt on his character and public service. Was the head gesture a sign that he was humbled, breaking down, or merely a signal to Legco president Tsang Yok-sing that he had finished answering a loaded question and was waiting for the next one?

After 45 years of public service and three months short of his retirement, it all came down to a sorry ending. This was not how Tsang would have wanted to be remembered. He thought his legacy much grander.

He was the finance chief who helped spearhead an unprecedented intervention in the stock and futures markets to fight off evil foreign hedge fund speculators in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

He was supposed to be the chief executive who restored stability and prosperity to the government and Hong Kong after years of ineffectual leadership under his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa. Back then, the public greeted news of Tsang's election as the city's new leader with enthusiasm. Now, weekly news magazine Yazhou Zhoukan runs a headline calling Tung a hero and a giant compared with his diminutive successor.

Tsang lamented how a man in his position could spend a lifetime building up public trust and lose it all in one day. How right he was.

Miriam Lau Kin-yee, the Liberal Party chief and one-time government ally, asked whether Tsang should take a voluntary leave of absence while Independent Commission Against Corruption officers conducted a probe. The chief executive replied that his job was too important to leave suddenly.

The legislator for sports and culture, Timothy Fok Tsun-ting - who has one of the worst attendance records and rarely asks questions - wanted to know whether Tsang derived any benefit when the government leased a disused munitions depot to a tycoon's company for wine storage. Tsang said no.

Then, as the Legco president declared an end to the merciless grilling, a wooden-faced Tsang, flanked by assistants and plain-clothed police officers, walked out of the chamber. Wong finally broke his silence and shouted after him. As throngs of journalists chased after Tsang, one shouted the impertinent question about whether he planned to resign.

He left through a guarded passageway without saying a word.