• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 10:29am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:12am

Hong Kong officials demonstrate how not to lead

Philip Bowring says our officials appear to be writing the book on poor governance with their displays of arrogance, poor judgment, self-protection, inertia and plain folly


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

At first glance, the story of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's attempt to visit the pope might seem just a bizarre anecdote about a bureaucrat turned none-too-successful political leader. But, on closer examination, it betrays an attitude of mind which seems all too common in the upper echelons of a civil service born to believe in its right to govern yet also seldom capable of leadership.

Why else would Tsang imagine that should he, as a Catholic, wish to meet the church's leader, this entirely personal matter should be handled any way other than through personal church contacts? Could he really be so innocent of civil service regulations that he would ask such servants to intercede for him - and not with the Vatican authorities but with an Italian politician linked to Silvio Berlusconi?

Could he equally have been so ignorant of the limits of Hong Kong's autonomy in dealing with foreign countries as to attempt to deal with a sovereign state (the Vatican) through Hong Kong's trade representative in Brussels?

It seems status had gone to his head, obliterating his sense of propriety, whether dealing with the church or Shenzhen tycoons. But one should also ask why a civil servant - in this case Duncan Pescod in Brussels and presumably some others in Hong Kong - should have felt unable to point out that Tsang was making a fool of himself and, in any event, exceeding his authority.

Were they too afraid to speak up? Were they unaware that, in any constitutional system, one of the tasks of the top permanent administrative officers is to advise the chief executive (or prime minister) of procedures and the limits of their personal power? Tsang seems to have seen himself as unaccountable generally and the civil servants as more accountable to him personally than to society at large.

Note that we know of all this only thanks to court proceedings in Italy.

Self-protection seems to be built into an elite quasi-masonic structure. For another example, look at what has not happened since the Lamma ferry disaster a year ago. It took a judicial inquiry just six months to come up with a 270-page report following evidence from over 100 witnesses, some of whom found varying degrees of fault both with the captains and those involved in the construction, licensing and operation of the vessels. But the government's own inquiry has been held back by official inertia.

If this was genuinely out of a need to ensure that any prosecutions were not compromised by lack of proper procedure in obtaining evidence, it might be understandable. But as this column has noted before, it is suspected that this was an attempt to deter prosecutions other than of the captains. The captains were charged before the inquiry report was published, so its conclusion on their culpability was redacted. The others were not, which makes subsequent prosecution more difficult.

Inertia is a natural state for bureaucracies, as for humans generally. But it is disappointing to see how quickly it infects ministers from outside as well as inside its ranks. Much was expected, for example, of Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing and his deputy Christine Loh Kung-wai, both individuals with track records in the field. Yet they, too, quickly fell into the trap of believing that things cannot be done without a "consensus".

"We have tried to balance the interests of all sectors and trades," Wong told a Legislative Council panel wanting to speed up implementation of a truck replacement programme. Why? Loh told the panel that the schedule was correct, "if you want to see a consensus among the industry and among legislators". But why should we want a consensus with a vested interest rather than action now to address a major public health problem?

Likewise, recently, a minister claimed that addressing the small house policy, the biggest single obstacle to providing adequate land for housing, was difficult and would take a long time. Why? The job of ministers and their top servants is to come up with solutions. These will necessarily upset some interests. That is what good government often requires. Legco may sometimes be a problem but all too often seeking a consensus is just a cover for cowardice.

Another absurd, even grotesque, so-called balancing act can be seen in the decision to raise domestic helpers' wages by just HK$90. This is supposed to balance the interests of employers with workers. But by what right is the gap between wages of these serfs and the households (presumably those with incomes above the median) to be deliberately widened? Helpers' wages have fallen well behind inflation while those of the top 30 per cent of household earners have risen significantly.

In effect, we are being told that more Hong Kong households have a right to a servant - this from an administration that claims to be addressing poverty, caused by income maldistribution. Which leads us back to the pope. Unlike the previous incumbent - and Tsang - Pope Francis seems genuinely concerned about income inequality. I am not suggesting Leung Chun-ying should ask Beijing to invite him here but maybe Tsang could show his respect by circulating Francis' comments on inequality to his former colleagues in the civil service.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

Interestingly, CY has probably done more in 1 year (both good and bad, depending on your viewpoint, but with a bit of courage to stand up to the property crooks) than the Donald in 7 years (mostly bad...definitely cowardice ruled him and his administration). The rest of the civil service is more of the same, where having to 'find consensus' is just an excuse to do nothing...
Thank you for writing this and well said. Being from HK, I am ashamed that such an ineffective and bumbling bunch of people attempt to represent us. One after the other, they get worse, and certainly do not deserve to be called "leader". Donald - if anyone ever has to remember him - will be remembered as the worst of them all. Good riddance. We need quality and courage fast.
"our officials appear to be writing the book on poor governance with their displays of arrogance, poor judgment, self-protection, inertia and plain folly".
Quite right Philip, but why are they like that?
Because they are totally unaccountable to the people they profess to rule. Unaccountability also leads to sticky fingers.....
What is so depressing is that so many nonentities remain in place - only Ko Wing Man and Anthony Cheung are trying - the rest to coin a phrase are "dreadful old waxworks". Donald's tenure as CE was a disaster for HK. Excellent article Mr. Bowring!
John Adams
I agree with whoaman. CY is certainly controversial, but at least he has the guts (and I hope - determination) to make some long over-due changes in HK..
I think we were all so relieved to see the back of Old Tung that we thought "anything is better " so we welcomed Donald Tsang and even endorsed his run for a 2nd term with his high-sounding slogan " I'll get the job done".
It was only about half-way through his 2nd term that we realized that Sir Bowtie had absolutely no intention of doing anything that would rock the boat, and so we sunk further and further backwards. Finally we found Tsang left HK and us all in a far worse condition than Old Tung did . .
Let's hope that come 2017 we have the sense to vote in someone much better that Tung and Tsang, otherwise we will only have ourselves to blame.
PS: For those who don't like CY, think how much worse things would be if Henry was now running HK !
Hong Kong government has learned since the hangover, typified by what Michael Suen, the previous Education Secretary, of his believe that the lesser Hong Kong government does the better it is. Examining the governing as a whole, inclusive of the legislation and the judiciary, Hong Kong is run and hijacked by business sector with various vested interested groups. As Leung and his administration begins to dismantle particularly Donald Tsang’s no-interference in ruling policy, the business sector begins to be forced to take actions including in sell offs of their businesses in Hong Kong. Has Hong Kong still can be business as usual, I am sure Donald Tsang’s brand of hands off and incompetent governance would still be in place without seeing business divesting in the name of maturity claim. We must not overlook the fact that the business sector is not of exceptional talent that makes overpowering the government possible; it is that the latter has been just too incompetent after the Brits has left. Civil servants are truly servants by taking and not giving orders. Consensus is an excuse for inaction out of incompetence. I believe the way to political maturity is beginning in the process for the Hong Kong people.
John Adams
Amen and AMEN !
Mr Bowring - you could not have said it better.
"...seeking a consensus is just a cover for cowardice."
Nailed it.
Mr. Bowring, I am still unwilling to overlook your knee-jerk racism, but I tip my hat to your hard hitting piece today.
Nasreddin Hodja once had two villager’s coming to him asking for his help to divide an
argument. He listened to the first.
- Oh yes, you are perfectly right, he said.
Then the second one made his complaint and told his side of the story.
- Oh, you are so right, this is absolutely right, proclaimed Hodja.
Then his wife stepped forward, shook her head and said: Hodja, Hodja, they are in disagreement, they cannot both be right. Hodja thought for a short while and then said.
- You are, of course, also perfectly right.




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