Is Frederick Ma readying himself for a political comeback?

Albert Cheng issues a note of caution as media-savvy former commerce minister Frederick Ma signals his ambitionswith high-profile statements

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 11:13pm

In his second term as chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa implemented a system of appointed officials in an attempt to resolve the difficulties in governance.

He also recruited people from outside government to help him run things, trying to shake off the shackled mentality of using administrative officers.

The ministerial system has now been in force for 11 years. Unfortunately, the track record of the elite group of professionals who joined the government isn't too good, and some careers ended less than gloriously. Those who were forced to step down include former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung and former health chief Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, while others left the government after a stint.

Today, some in the Leung Chun-ying administration have already lost their credibility, but insist on carrying on. Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing and Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim spring to mind. The public has lost faith in their ability to accomplish anything.

Among the elite group of professionals recruited from outside, the cream of the crop was undoubtedly former secretary for commerce and economic development Frederick Ma Si-hang, who was popular with the public.

Since leaving the government in 2008 for health reasons, Ma's popularity has been steadily climbing.

Frederick Ma certainly learned his lesson and has become quite media savvy

He is active in religious circles, has taken up an honorary professorship at the University of Hong Kong, and is also a professor of finance at Polytechnic University.

Ma is popular with the media and appears regularly in press reports as a current affairs commentator. He is also a well-known figure in the business community. He gave up an executive job at PCCW to join the government in 2002.

As secretary for financial services and the treasury, he was severely criticised for his role in the "penny stock" fiasco, in which these stocks were hit hard following the publication of a Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing consultation paper looking at whether they should be delisted.

Soon after, he became the first minister to make a public apology.

In a recent radio interview, Ma defended himself and said he took the blame because of his mishandling of the media. Ma certainly learned his lesson and has become quite media savvy.

Ma managed to survive controversies in a turbulent political environment because he remained popular with all sides without siding with any one of them.

In 2006, the government wanted to broaden the city's tax base with a possible sales tax. Under then financial secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, Ma was given the task of conducting a consultation process to test public reaction to an unpopular proposal. But he was smart enough to handle the task in such a way as to avoid tarnishing his reputation.

On the controversial issue of RTHK, Ma has always supported the idea of corporatising the station to give it absolute independence so it can genuinely develop public service broadcasting. Due to a change of political environment, however, the idea met with great resistance both internally and externally.

On top of that, there were the sliding popularity ratings of the Donald Tsang Yam-kuen government, the impending opening of public airwaves, and the issuing of more TV licences, all of which were potential political time bombs.

In June 2008, Ma resigned from government after being diagnosed with a brain condition caused by malformations in his blood vessels. But a year later, he was able to make a comeback in business. With his political acumen, skill and talent, opportunities abound for Ma and he can certainly take his pick. He is now a non-executive director of the MTR Corporation, and there is talk he may become its chairman.

He has been vocal in his opposition to the Occupy Central movement, expressing concern that it may lead to a situation similar to the 1967 riots. This was going too far.

He has also lamented the low quality of our politicians, and said officials and pan-democrats must break their deadlock in communication. Judging from his political gestures and views, he is scripting and directing his political comeback by taking advantage of the current situation. His eyes are undoubtedly on the chief executive seat. With talk of a so-called "Plan B" to replace Leung as Hong Kong's leader, Ma immediately came out in support, saying Leung should finish his first term.

If Hong Kong does implement "one man, one vote" to select the chief executive in 2017, Ma will find it easy to get selected for the election and has a good chance of claiming the top job. Our "Fat Ma" certainly has the ability and aspirations. We must keep a watchful eye on this archetypal politician.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.