Expect scrutiny when swimming in clear waters

It may be harsh but the public demands full disclosure from politicians and their families

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 4:27am

There is a Chinese saying, "there are no fish when the water is too clear", so what happens when this meets demands for a government that is "whiter than white"?

It is a question that does not always get an agreeable answer in today's Hong Kong. The public expects its officials and their families to be squeaky clean and free from any doubts about conflicts of interest, yet pure water drives away fish and begs the question: Can the government find talented people who are willing to sacrifice all their privacy?

So, like it or not, Development Bureau chief Paul Chan Mo-po is to stay. And he will be leading the new town development project in the New Territories where his wife's family owns a piece of farm land, despite the resignation of his political assistant, who failed to declare his family's ownership of land in the same area.

In another development, former Executive Council member Franklin Lam Fan-keung chose to quit even after the city's graft-buster dropped his case of alleged misconduct in public office. Lam, who was personally invited by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to join the top advisory body, complained in his resignation statement that his family had been harassed in past months.

In an apparent effort to dismiss speculation that the government was considering swapping his position with that of Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Greg So Kam-leung to avoid a conflict of interest, Chan has so far attended four Legislative Council public hearings on the new town project.

He did, however, say his handling of the controversy was "clumsy".

Now that the Legco has started its summer break, Chan will get some relief from being ridiculed and grilled by lawmakers. Yet public feedback on his "no quitting" decision remains sharply divided, especially with the resignation of his aide and Lam.

The argument has now turned to family factors, also the feminine, or "wife" aspect.

It was triggered by a blog post by Lam Chiu-ying, former director of the Observatory. Lam, who helped draft the environment policy for the chief executive during the election campaign, said that while he did not know Chan and had no reason to defend him, he found the attacks on and criticism of Chan very "male-centred".

Lam argued that anyone respecting "equality between men and women" should recognise Chan's wife as an independent entity, and treating her interests as that of her husband's was an insult to a professional woman like Frieda Hui Po-ming, who is a chartered accountant.

"This 'Paul Chan owned a piece of farmland' saga is simply nothing," Lam said.

These views stirred up wide debate and some criticism, but the "feminine" argument touched on another issue: the role of the spouse and family of a senior official.

In recent years, we have seen a new term in Hong Kong politics, "BMW" - not referring to the luxury car brand, but a sarcastic abbreviation of the "blame my wife" excuse being used by some political figures.

When Chan claimed the farmland was owned by his wife and her family, some joked it was another "BMW" case; but others joked that husbands might not always know everything about their wives' wealth. So while calls for expanding the scope of the declaration system grew stronger, they also raised some eyebrows.

Political appointees come from different backgrounds, including the business world. Their spouses and families may engage in business or investments of various types, and revealing their "interests" and financial status to the public is not always very appealing.

The government is facing a dilemma over where to draw the line to ensure the public is satisfied with its transparency concerning conflicts of interest without deterring talented people from joining its ranks.

Witch hunts or endless chasing of family ties are certainly not acceptable to most people, but the political reality requires that not only the officials, but also their direct family members, have courage and wisdom.

"Privacy" or "family matters" are not good excuses when it comes to the crunch. That may seem cruel, but that is politics.