It's derogatory to accuse someone of being penny wise and pound foolish. But some of our civil servants seem to be much worse than that. They are penny foolish as well, and there's no cure for that.
To the amazement of Markus Shaw, a respected environmentalist, the Registration and Electoral Office spotted an error of 80.9 HK cents in the campaign accounts he filed after running unsuccessfully for a seat on the Election Committee that chooses the chief executive. The office wrote to him by double-registered post - which cost HK$25.40 - to demand a resubmission of the accounts within 30 days. If he fails to do so, the office threatens to accuse him of violating election laws. Shaw must also obtain a declaration sworn in front of a solicitor or a justice of the peace to vouch for the new statement's accuracy. We can safely assume that when it's all said and done, the whole exercise will cost a lot more than 80.9 HK cents, given the man hours involved on both sides.
You might expect the head of the office will now recognise the error for what it was and issue new guidelines commensurate with common sense. But despite the publicity, Li Pak-hong, the chief electoral officer, is unrepentant. His office issued a statement yesterday saying it had no discretion in the matter. It even threatened to call in the ICAC.
"There is no blanket exemption under [the law] for any error(s) or false statement(s) found in an election return no matter how small the monetary amount involved is," it said.
"The candidate concerned is still required to file a revised return within a specified period so as to relieve himself of the possible legal liability. The enforcement authority is the Independent Commission Against Corruption."
You may think this is an isolated incident. But a reader said he had a similar experience with the Registration and Electoral Office involving an error of 2 HK cents: "Was overseas, ended up costing me nearly HK$700 to send the package FedEx due to that 30-day deadline to reply, or else they threatened they would see me in court."
Let's give our discretion-challenged civil servants leeway of HK$10 - to spare the public any more such silly harassment. Or is that too much to ask?