Teresa Cheng must not remain blind to Hong Kong people’s high expectations of government officials
Alice Wu says the justice minister’s refusal to resign in the wake of the scandal over illegal structures at her homes displays her ignorance of how people’s trust in the government has been shaken as a result of her intransigence
There’s no doubt our Secretary for Justice of not even a month,Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, is a total novice. Cheng has put her inexperience and political insensitivity on full display. And from the way she responded to the grilling at the Legislative Council last Wednesday, it’s very apparent that she still has no clue.
When asked if she still believes she is suitable for her office, she answered, “I do not accept [the suggestion] that I am a person without integrity.” Well, as Barack Obama once said, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”
Miss Cheng, this is not about what you think of yourself. This is about public perception. You’re a high-ranking public office holder: how people interpret your (in)actions, your handling of your private matters and yourself matters. Pleading ignorance or being too busy does not fly, especially in the court of public opinion. That’s why this drama over something you should have known better has nothing to do with your own opinion of yourself. The longer this goes on, the deeper the government’s credibility will plunge with yours.
It’s sad that even with all her public service experience, Cheng remains a complete political idiot. Illegal structures may be common in Hong Kong, but her illegal structures are damaging the foundation of the basic trust public office holders and the government must have to function.
It may be true that judicial impartiality is, as Cheng said, “not subject to a person alone but a whole system”, but it is even truer that the impact of a personal scandal lowers the public’s esteem of public officials and deepens their distrust of the government. The corrosion of trust is detrimental to governance and to this city’s development. I don’t know if it is outright ignorance or arrogance to continue to see this as a personal matter when its political ramifications are huge.
It is exactly because the ramifications of scandals can be so expansive that politicians resign in their wake. Former Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong is someone who knew exactly what holding public office involves – there are inherent expectations of public office holders whose responsibilities include protecting the integrity of the office they hold. In short, public office requires, first and foremost, the recognition that its work contributes to and has impact on something wider, beyond the self.
Lam’s tenure as the director of the Chief Executive’s Office for Tung Chee-hwa ended with his tendering his resignation within hours of the publication of a photograph of him with a woman outside a Tokyo hotel. The potential political ramifications outweighed his personal reputation or explanation. With his resignation, the damage stopped with him. Lam did not defend his right to privacy or his integrity. Lam, who later returned to public office as chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission and then convenor of the Executive Council, enjoyed vast popularity.
It’s perhaps too big a challenge for Cheng to play catch-up and impossible for her to be on par with a pro like Lam. But if we consider how the current financial secretary had risen through the ranks in spite of his illegal structures and his stake in farmlands as development secretary, we can perhaps see why Cheng is hanging on to her defence and seems defiant.
But with Legislative Council by-elections on the horizon, Cheng is going to have to bear some responsibility for their outcome. The more this administration stokes public anger with its blatant arrogance and tolerance for ignorance, the more political inefficacy will grow.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA