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Carrie Lam

How Carrie Lam can put the destiny of Hong Kong in safe hands

Regina Ip points out that controversial ministers and the accountability system have been a drag on the current administration, and calls for more able replacements if the incoming government is to achieve its goals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 9:13pm

Any organisation is only as strong as the people who lead it. In the past, Hong Kong won much kudos for the high quality of its civil service. Their reputation was so high that senior civil servants were prime targets of the united front efforts of the New China News Agency, then the unofficial representatives of the central government in Hong Kong.

Beijing authorities set such great store by retaining the British-trained senior civil servants that all of those at ministerial level were put on the “through train” of service in the Hong Kong special administrative region as principal officials.

In 2002, Tung Chee-hwa expanded the talent pool of the SAR government by introducing a “principal officials accountability system”, in effect a political appointment system whereby the chief executive could appoint to his cabinet whoever met his requirements. This is how various finance and environmental protection experts, and Henry Tang Ying-yen, an industrialist and a possible successor to Tung, got into government at the ministerial level.

Shake up of Hong Kong’s ministerial system proposed

In 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen further expanded the system by adding two tiers of “undersecretaries” and “political assistants”. “Undersecretaries” would serve as the second-in-command in a bureau, while “political assistants”, pitched at junior directorate level, were meant to be savvy political operatives shuttling between the executive and legislative branches, lubricating the relations and helping to secure the passage of the government’s bills and motions.

Many [civil servants] have proved to be adaptive and resilient, with a knack to move across different policy areas with competence

Such efforts should have paid off in broadening the government talent pool. Yet, chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has warned of a “nightmare” for her new administration due to her inability to fill cabinet posts. Where have all the talents gone?

Fifteen years after the city’s experiment with political appointments, a few facts have emerged. Straitlaced civil servants are often lampooned for their lack of vision and innovation, but many have proved to be adaptive and resilient, with a knack to move across different policy areas with competence – thanks to their years of training as the elite general management cadre of the service. A good example is veteran trouble-shooter Michael Suen Ming-yeung, who retired in 2012 as secretary for education after serving in a wide range of challenging areas.

In comparison, the new generation of political appointees have a much less impressive survival rate. Since 2002, few have worked beyond one term.

One of the best-known examples, high-profile financial heavyweight Antony Leung Kam-chung, actually served as financial secretary for two years only, from May 2001 to July 2003.

Hong Kong chief executive-elect Carrie Lam ‘working around the clock’ to find ministers

Every administration since 2002 has seen a turnover of large numbers of cabinet members. Many in the current administration have declared their intention to step down. The accountability system, which has provided flexibility to bring in newcomers, equally provided flexibility for senior civil servants to bow out. As civil servants can “cash in” on their appointment (that is, collect their pension on changing their status from civil servant to political appointee), several chose to quit the public service after a stint as principal officials.

Thus, since the inception of the accountability system, at least half a dozen experienced senior civil servants had left the government to seek a new life in greener pastures.

[Many] would not have reached the upper echelons of government without the alternative route offered by the accountability system

In their place, many had been brought in and had proved to be round pegs in square holes – misfits who would not have reached the upper echelons of government without the alternative route offered by the accountability system.

In fact, it is widely recognised that the current administration has been plagued by the large numbers of controversial “ministers” who have been a drag on the effectiveness and popularity of the government. It is difficult to see how the next administration could perform better without more able replacements, even if Carrie Lam is willing to give the city all the energies she can muster.

Despite daily reports of elites in the business or professional sectors turning down Lam’s invitations to serve in her cabinet, some political parties seem ever more ready to send her a long list of public office aspirants from their motley crew of district councillors and office-bearers.

The enthusiasm to serve is not hard to understand. An undersecretary is paid ­HK$193,775 to HK$223,586, depending on experience and qualifications. A political assistant is paid ­HK$104,340, almost three times the take-home pay of a district councillor. Add to that the newfound glory of riding in official cars and hobnobbing with people of much higher social status and real power.

Why is Hong Kong still giving out colonial-era perks to its civil servants?

Small wonder that Starry Lee Wai-king, the chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said that she was ready to present Lam with a long list.

So in place of trained civil servants who had cut their teeth in the depths of the government secretariat, we are likely to see another batch of new entrants, who would “hit the jackpot” alongside the chief executive candidate whom they backed.

Nothing wrong with giving the victor the spoils, and never mind the much fatter pay the new appointees will get. But even if more inspiring leaders could not be found, the least that we want is our destiny in safe enough hands.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party