Leung Chun-ying can still be a great leader
Peter Kammerer says that while pragmatism is needed in leadership, Leung will serve Hong Kong better if he has the ambition to match
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would not seem to have much in common with US President Barack Obama beyond opinion polls that show as many people like him as loathe him. Their backgrounds, political style and character are markedly different. But they both took office promising big changes. Obama, his bid for re-election next Tuesday against challenger Mitt Romney on a knife-edge, well knows how unrealistic that was; Leung is still finding out.
Every incoming leader aspires to greatness. They have grand plans and visions; they want to make their mark and leave it. Obama won election four years ago on the back of his campaign slogan, "Yes we can", but quickly found out about a more apt expression, coined a century and a half earlier by the first chancellor of the German empire, Otto von Bismarck: "Politics is the art of the possible." Every freshman politician soon finds out its meaning - that the conflicts, rivalries and tensions of government dictate that goals have to be inched towards and sometimes put aside in the name of practicality.
National education should have never reared its head in the form it did and will continue to harm perceptions of Leung until it is scrapped. But such a failing does not mean that he cannot aim for greatness as a leader. Hong Kong is at a crossroads and needs guidance towards the next stage of development.
Leung could dismantle the government's land policy, which is its primary source of income. Its setting of land at so high a price is the underlying reason for property being so expensive. He should also consider doing away with the small-house policy in the New Territories. Land is in short supply because of every indigenous male villager being eligible, at the age of 18, to a free plot of land, on which he can build a three-storey house of 2,100 square feet. Not only is this unsustainable - at a point, there won't be any land left - but it is also discriminatory towards women and citizens with indigenous roots in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Officials talk of the gap between rich and poor, knowing full well that the people who carry out their orders, civil servants, are a prime cause. A job in the civil service is one for life, with envious wages, pay rises and conditions. Civil servants live comfortably while the vast majority struggle. Extending those benefits to the rest of society would lessen the divide.
Government financial waste is rampant. A good place to start the cost-cutting is by shutting down the bulk of Hong Kong's 11 overseas economic and trade offices.
It is a mystery why a city in China in an age of internet connectivity has to have separate offices and staff in Singapore, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Brussels, Berlin, Geneva, New York, Washington, San Francisco and Toronto. The funds saved could improve our image by cleaning the air through getting old diesel vehicles off the roads, ending the burning of coal by power stations and making ships and ferries use less-polluting fuel.
Meeting just one of these challenges in his remaining four years and eight months will make Leung great in my book.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post