Exco chief Lam Woon-kwong's grand ambition: a call for grown-up policymaking
Leung Chun-ying can lay the foundations for solving some of the city's key problems if critics give him a chance, says Exco chief Lam Woon-kwong
Tony Cheung and Gary Cheung
After 30 years in government service, Lam Woon-kwong still has one unfulfilled dream for Hong Kong - to help lay the foundations for the city to overcome its many social problems, from housing woes to the challenges of an ageing population.
Seven months on from his appointment as convenor of the Executive Council, Lam remains confident Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying can pave the way for a more prosperous Hong Kong. But it's the politicians, rather than Leung, who must make changes, Lam says - they need to be rational in their criticism and the civil service handed a clear, feasible agenda.
"When I decided to join the Executive Council, one of my biggest wishes was, really, that this administration set the foundations for solving large, long-established social problems," Lam says. "How could these many things be solved in five years? But if Leung can set the foundations for future governments, the administration would deserve a lot of credit."
Lam, 62, headed several government departments before and after the handover, led the organisation of the 2008 Olympic equestrian events in Hong Kong, and most recently won acclaim for his leadership of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Now, he's hoping his role as convenor will allow him to help tackle burning issues such as poverty and care for the elderly.
It's believed that Lam's popularity with the public and experience as a civil servant led Leung, himself a former Exco chief, to appoint Lam to his present position. But Lam stresses his role is about more than sticking to the government line. He has warned Leung he must deliver concrete achievements off the back of his first policy address last month, or face a crisis of governance by the time he delivers his second policy speech. But Lam is not shy when it comes to hitting back at the chief executive's detractors.
Citing Leung's decision to set up a committee to examine the feasibility of free kindergarten education, Lam says it was "mad and irresponsible" for politicians to question why Leung could not deliver on the pledge right away.
"I am not defending C.Y. Leung, I am defending Hong Kong's core values," Lam says, raising his voice. "It's impossible to tackle such a highly complex problem without a wide and thorough consultation - that's not the way Hong Kong operates. It is useless to criticise us for being slow, for not being like Singapore or the mainland - since it is our core value to be open to public opinion."
It was wrong to accuse Leung of employing delaying tactics given he had promised to "take practical steps to provide" free kindergarten education, Lam says.
On the housing shortage, Lam says Leung deserves credit for mapping out a long-term strategy. "As a political leader, one must balance the voters' short-term interests and the nation's long-term needs, and history will judge how you balance those interests and deliver," Lam says. "A good politician must comment from this perspective too … and not ask 'oh, why did you promise to build 20,000 public homes a year but now you say [we have to wait until] 2018?' What you asked is a stupid question!"
Lam says former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen lacked the courage to boost the housing and land supply after years of economic turbulence. It is unfair to expect the current administration to turn the situation around in just a few months.
"It takes time to go through town planning, environmental impact assessments and consultation with district councils, and if you screw up any one of these steps, the process can be prolonged indefinitely," Lam says. "So when politicians in the Legislative Council ask 'why are you building [houses] so slowly?' were they speaking against their conscience? Who doesn't know about the raft of obstacles that district councils pose to every consultation? And where are those councillors mainly from? Aren't they from major political parties?"
Lam says district bodies had blocked "countless" public works in the past, including plans to build public housing and homes for the elderly, as well as facilities for those with mental health problems and disabilities. Lawmakers and district councillors must drop their short-sightedness and the "not-in-my-backyard" mentality, Lam says, because poverty alleviation, care for the elderly, environmental protection and housing will affect the city for decades to come.
"This is our common business, so we can do it together or sink together," Lam said.
When asked about policy addresses that shaped the city, Lam mentions late governor Murray MacLehose's 1972 speech and former governor Chris Patten's address in 1992 as the two most memorable. They set out long-term visions for the city and delivered on them. Leung's policy address has the potential to join their ranks - if the chief executive's plans are carried out, Lam says. And that is where lawmakers must drop their politicking, step up to the plate and work for the common good of the city.
"Everyone is free to criticise and disagree with his vision, but no major political party should deny the fact that there are many social agendas and policies that they themselves have been advocating for years. After they were repeatedly ignored by Tung Chee-hwa and Tsang's governments, Leung finally paid attention to them for the first time," Lam says, pointing to studies on drawing a poverty line and retirement protection as two examples.
Yet, as a former secretary for the civil service, Lam is aware of the danger of tiring out government officials and public servants. "It is easy to overload the government when the administration makes too many issues a priority. Manpower and time are limited … it is possible to deal with two difficult issues at a time, but to handle three or four problems would present a huge challenge to the administration … I dare not say it is impossible, but to my understanding, you must give fellow colleagues enormous support in co-ordination and decision-making."