Donald Tsang

Tender is the knight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am

The Chinese saying 'tears only flow when one sees the coffin' came to mind when witnessing shamed Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's recent amateur dramatics before the Legislative Council. But why was anyone surprised that he had accepted favours proffered?

Tsang was raised during an era of widespread public venality. In his youth, police corruption was like a steamroller: one could ride it or walk alongside it, but blocking its path was impossible. Station sergeants were the worst culprits - fixers, triad link-men and pay-off paymasters. Tsang's late father (himself a long-serving station sergeant) must have mentioned the perils that eventually came from accepting advantages - or being perceived to do so.

Senior official Sir Donald Luddington identified Tsang, then a young non-graduate executive officer, as administrative-officer-grade material, and ensured his rapid promotion through the civil service. An English name was chosen in grateful homage and Tsang Yam-kuen became another Donald. Various pithy phrases accurately describe such behaviour, but are too blunt to repeat in the pages of a family newspaper. Luddington ended his own distinguished career as commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption - and now his one-time protege is being investigated by the very same body.

In his memoir Via Ports: From Hong Kong to Hong Kong, former governor Sir Alexander Grantham defined public expectations of top government officials. 'He should be dignified without being pompous, and approachable and friendly without being intimate, because if he is intimate with any one individual or any particular group he will be accused, rightly or wrongly, of favouritism. He should not con- fine his associations to the 'upper crust' because he belongs to everyone in the colony, from the highest to the lowest. He must be discri- minating, but not exclusive, in the social entertainment that he offers and accepts.' Clearly, the current chief executive never read - much less comprehended - this excellent advice.

That Sir Donald didn't feel bound by civil service rules that (strictly speaking) no longer applied to him - even after decades of assiduously following them - starkly illustrates the nature of his moral compass. Tsang's disgrace is a devastating Hong Kong metaphor: form inevitably triumphs over substance, and a fur coat (or bow-tie) frequently conceals threadbare, filthy undergarments. But no one should feel let down - how could anyone expect better from a man who, 15 years ago, eagerly accepted a knighthood and then declined to use it.

In her memoir China To Me, American author Emily Hahn described Sir Robert Kotewall, the controversial interwar executive councillor who - when the Japanese took power - dropped his knighthood and shouted 'banzai' at the invaders' victory parade. 'He started out as a clerk in the government, and worked his way up, speech by speech, to his knighthood and a glorious position among the British-tamed cats ...'

Sound familiar? Hahn realised who was ultimately to blame for such a creature's appearance. 'The British manufactured him and deliberately used cheap material, so they shouldn't be surprised or hurt because he has gone on fulfilling his destiny as a genuine talking doll, now that the Japanese instead of the British are winding him up. How should he know the difference? The Japs let him make speeches too, don't they?'

Substitute tycoon power-brokers for Japanese invaders, and this searing curriculum vitae - from clerkdom to knighthood - could belong to Sir Donald Tsang.

Kotewall's generally positive contributions to Hong Kong over some decades were obliterated by this opportunistic behaviour. And like Kotewall's tarnished reputation, 70 years on, a lingering sense of reproach will, sadly, be Tsang's principal legacy to his descendants.

Alexander Grantham's sister-in-law, Mrs Scott, built a successful property and interior design business during his tenure. It was alleged she profited from his access to privileged information.