Reform Hong Kong’s civic honours system to make it independent, open and fair

Grenville Cross says routinely handing out medals to time-servers of a particular rank, regardless of merit, devalues the system and the lack of oversight leaves it open to abuse

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 6:38pm

“What I like about the Order of the Garter,” said Lord Melbourne, one of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers, “is that there is no damned merit about it.”

After the recent announcement that the chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, had been awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal, Hong Kong’s highest civic award, she declared that it was “not something so special”. She could, of course, have declined the award, if she thought it no big deal, but she explained that, since the handover, all chief, financial and justice secretaries had routinely received the medal, sometimes, unlike her, very early in their tenure.

Hong Kong award winners announced: Carrie Lam receives top civic medal

To be meaningful, honours must be related to distinction, not service, and should reward actual achievement. To hand them out willy-nilly to every time-server of a particular rank, regardless of merit, not only devalues the system but is also unfair to the truly deserving, but the problem goes deeper.

Pro-government lawmakers are regularly honoured, almost as a matter of course. In the latest list, Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and Liberal Party worthies bagged a Grand Bauhinia Medal and gold and silver stars. By contrast, opposition legislators, however distinguished or long-serving, were, yet again, excluded from official recognition.

Standards of integrity in public life must, at all costs, be protected

In Britain, after the prime minister has consulted party leaders, honours are distributed equitably among people of different political persuasions, on the basis of merit. In Hong Kong, however, the honours system is used by the government to reward allies and snub opponents, and to show that contrary views are not appreciated. Even mediocre placemen in the Legislative Council can confidently aspire to a medal, provided they toe the official line.

This year, 310 people received honours, many undoubtedly well-deserved. However, if people simply pump money into worthy causes to attract attention, make up the numbers on government committees or hobnob with the elites, this should not, without more, qualify them for medals. The top honours should embrace the truly deserving, including the brave, and those who go the extra mile, for example.

Honours can bring justifiable pleasure to the deserving, but they can also bring out the worst in people, and may be exploited by the unscrupulous.

In Britain, for example, after the Great War, government agents illicitly sold honours to raise political funds, and it was said that the cost of a peerage or knighthood was as well known as the price of a joint of beef. The public outcry over honouring the unworthy resulted in the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925, which made it an offence, punishable with two years’ imprisonment, to deal in honours. Standards of integrity in public life must, at all costs, be protected, and the honours system, to be credible, should be independent, open and fair.

In Hong Kong, however, nominations for honours are considered by a selection committee chaired by the chief secretary (who recused herself while her own award was under consideration), and are dominated by government and ex-government figures, but lack serious independent input, let alone oversight. In Britain, by contrast, the honours committees all have an independent chairman, with most members coming from outside government, which is a useful paradigm.

Until the honours system is reformed, it will be open to abuse, and there is a heavy responsibility on the ICAC’s Corruption Prevention Department to ensure that the system is operated fairly in the public interest.

Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst