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To govern effectively, Carrie Lam should look beyond civil service

Chief executive-elect is filling her team with bureaucrats; instead, she must make an effort to find suitable people to help run Hong Kong in this most challenging of times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 May, 2017, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 May, 2017, 1:03am

So much for Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor being CY 2.0. As some of us have long predicted, she is far more likely to become Donald 2.0. No, I don’t mean the going-to-jail part as with the ex-chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, but the instinct of both as career civil servants to protect and promote their own within the government. 

As Eric Chan Kwok-ki, the director of the chief executive-elect’s office and himself a former career immigration official has disclosed, Lam is set to promote more deputy ministers to take up the top jobs at key policy bureaus and departments. 

Among those expected to be promoted are undersecretary for food and health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, undersecretary for education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung and undersecretary for security John Lee Ka-chiu. If this is true, so much for the sensational rumour of former singer-turned-education-guru Agnes Chan Miling being the next education chief. 

If you look back at how the city’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, tried to restructure the whole civil service and the amount of anger, trepidation and rancour that it resulted in, it was natural that Tsang, his successor, resorted to promoting many of his own civil service colleagues to the top posts. 

It looks like Lam is about to do the same when she takes over from Leung Chun-ying on July 1. Perhaps this is what she really means when she claims she is having real trouble finding suitable candidates to fill her cabinet.

Maybe that’s true or maybe she just hasn’t looked hard enough. After all, if you are making serious money with a brilliant career, why would you want to join our dysfunctional public sector? 

Whatever is the truth, Lam now has the perfect cover to promote internally. We have already seen that part of her administrative mindset when she closed ranks during the lead-tainted water scandal in 2015 and refused to bring any senior bureaucrats to account. 

As the pan-democratic and localist opposition gear up to take on the new government, Lam will need a loyal and cohesive civil service. But loyalty does not equate to ability. And it’s hard to teach old bureaucrats new tricks. 

It will be a balancing act, but one can only hope Lam will not go all out like Tsang once did. Instead, she must make a serious effort to find suitable people to help run Hong Kong in this most challenging of times.