Filling the shoes left behind by a good predecessor is not easy. The challenge is even bigger when it is a sensitive job closely monitored by the public. Former health chief Dr York Chow Yat-ngok must have felt the heat in succeeding Lam Woon-kwong as head of the city's Equal Opportunities Commission. Even before assuming the post, he upset the sexual minorities with what appeared to be a weaker stance on the need for an anti-discrimination law. His background as a former minister is also not reassuring to many, raising concerns about whether the commission can continue to act as a watchdog, independent from the government.
There are good reasons why institutions that are set up to keep the authorities in check should be kept at arm's length. The commission is the closest we have to a human rights body with statutory powers. Like the Ombudsman and Privacy Commission, it may have to deal with encroachments from officialdom from time to time. Appointing someone who can do the job without fear or favour is essential. But there appears to be a tendency to entrust these top jobs to ex-officials. Concerns over their independence are understandable.
Lam and Chow both came from the government. But the outgoing commissioner successfully dispelled worries with his vocal criticism against questionable public policies. It showed that a government background is not necessarily an obstacle. There is no reason to assume Chow would compromise the commission's work at this stage. Just like his predecessor, Chow's career does not seem to have much to do with human rights. But his good administrative skills and strong ties with the disabled community should be helpful.
The high standards set by Lam makes his a hard act to follow. That is why Chow immediately drew fire when he seemingly sought to play down the importance of human rights, saying the city had a future only if we can maintain a "certain level of human rights and freedom". He also said the public was split on gay rights legislation, echoing the government's position. He disappointed many who expected him to continue to push for the law rather than speaking euphemistically like a minister.
As head of the anti-discrimination watchdog, Chow is required to show more commitment. We hope he can do a better job than his predecessors. He has to live up to public expectations and prove critics wrong.