Donald Tsang

Even politicians must pay the price for bad behaviour

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am


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Why on earth do they do it? Why risk so much for the sake of so little? These questions are rather obviously raised in the wake of the scandal engulfing Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. However, he is not alone among political leaders who are seemingly bewitched by the rich friends they acquire once they get into office.

As Tsang flounders when explaining why he felt it necessary to take trips on yachts and private planes belonging to tycoons, over in Germany, its former president Christian Wulff recently resigned over a scandal involving a loan from a tycoon's wife. Wulff, echoing Tsang, explained that he had done nothing legally wrong but should have known better. Unlike Tsang, however, he has accepted the ultimate consequence of his actions.

There are many such scandals stretching from Britain to Japan to the United States. A common thread links them and it is not the one that many people imagine. It is not that these politicians are simply greedy; that's an insufficient explanation for why they are so prone to accepting favours from their new best and richest friends.

The case of Tsang explains this rather well. He is not poor by any stretch of the imagination. He has an annual salary of about HK$4million, 48 times the amount paid to China's president and around HK$1million more than the US president earns. Moreover, he lives rent free in a mini-palace, has a bevy of servants, cars and other facilities at his disposal. Yet, compared to the seriously rich tycoons that inhabit Tsang's circle of friends, he is a poor relation.

Remarkably, this relative inequality breeds a sense of thwarted entitlement in a public servant who works long hours, has heavy responsibilities and ends up living a lifestyle which is somewhat out of sync with a position that is not quite well paid enough to sustain this state of luxury once he leaves office.

So, when one of the tycoons suggests that the head of government might like to hop aboard his private jet, they are merely inviting the hapless politician into their world.

Why not, they figure? After all, who's to know? And, even if they get found out, surely the public will accept that leaders with such heavy public duties deserve a break every now and again? That, at any rate, seems to be the bizarre thought process shared by a remarkably large number of political leaders.

Tsang, who has been a public servant for over four decades, wrote in this newspaper that he only learned in 'this past week' that 'the community expects extremely high levels of integrity and transparency from all public officials, especially the chief executive'. This is mind-boggling. Does it mean that until the scandal broke, Tsang somehow imagined that lower standards were expected?

More likely, what Tsang was really saying was that he expected to be given a break. That expectation only came after the shattering of the illusion that his secret was safe.

Having worked for politicians and reported on them for many years, I can confirm that they inhabit a truly abnormal world in which they imagine themselves to be immune from many of the consequences ordinary people accept once they have done something wrong. And even politicians who are remarkably sharp about many things seem distinctly stupid when it comes to the consequences of their personal behaviour - ask former US president Bill Clinton about that one.

In this political wonderland, these leaders also imagine that, if the worst comes to the worst, they can somehow control the outcome and even turn on their accusers, who are blamed for focusing on trivia. The fact that this line of attack seldom works seems not to trouble those who are convinced that they can get away with what they know to be wrong.

So, a dangerous combination of arrogance, greed and irresponsibility arises, fostering the kind of scandal that never goes away. Really clever politicians - Clinton comes to mind again - sort of get away with it but the stain remains. As for those who are less clever, well, ask the man who was briefly known as Sir Donald about that one.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur