Former minister Fred Ma says Leung Chun-ying's team should be given more time
Former minister Frederick Ma knows of what he speaks when he says the beleaguered chief executive should be given more time to prove himself
Tony Cheung and Gary Cheung
His political career was just a few weeks old when, in July 2002, Frederick Ma Si-hang was drawn into a crisis that threatened his position as secretary for financial services and the treasury.
A Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing consultation document suggested delisting stocks that had traded at less than 50 Hong Kong cents for 30 consecutive days, as well as those of companies that had reported three straight years of losses.
Within a day, the price of some stocks had plunged almost 90 per cent, and more than HK$10 billion was wiped off the value of the exchange. Fingers were soon pointed at the new minister, whom stockbrokers said should have stopped publication of the incendiary report.
"I was really like a newborn baby, being thrown in at the deep end," recalls Ma, who was plucked from an executive job at PCCW to join the government. "In the first week of my tenure I was heavily criticised by [then lawmaker] Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee. I came from the commercial world … I didn't even know how the Legislative Council worked!"
An inquiry into the "penny stocks affair" criticised Ma and other officials but declined to apportion blame.
His advisors were divided on whether he should apologise, but on September 11, 2002, with a No8 typhoon warning flying, he decided to convene a press conference, bowed deeply and told the assembled journalists he "accepts wholeheartedly the criticisms made by the public and in the report".
Soon after, he was named least popular politician in a Chinese University survey. But the apology was enough to ensure his survival, and by the time he resigned six years later on health grounds, Ma was one of the most popular members of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's team.
With that in mind, Ma has watched with interest the scandals surrounding members of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's year-old administration.
"A few ministers are at the bottom of the water," he says. "I don't know whether these babies will make their way to the surface and become great swimmers.
"But if you want to make your way up, you have to make your best effort regarding political wisdom, communication and emotional intelligence."
It took him years, he recalls, to rebuild his relationship with lawmakers and the media.
"One of the first things I did was to communicate with lawmakers … you have to show them you can get things done and are not afraid of failing.
"There are more difficult lawmakers: you can either ask your assistant or a civil servant to take care of him, or you can choose to [talk to him] in person to win his support - I chose the latter," Ma said. "Because these are influential figures in Legco, it is better for them to say nice things about you than trying to say a hundred words yourself."
Ma acknowledges the political atmosphere has changed with the emergence of new political groupings, a "more aggressive" media environment and the expansion of Legco from 60 seats to 70. While those changes have made the government's job harder, he says ministers can still learn from his experience when it comes to building relationships.
His experience has made him more "forgiving and encouraging" of the present government than its critics. And having known Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for decades, he believes he will have enough support from Beijing to see out his five-year term.
"I think he has to try harder," Ma says, adding there are signs of hope in the fact that "he is starting to … liaise more frequently with different political parties".
He declined to give further advice for Leung, saying only: "We have each other's phone number, so he can call me any time."
Ma adds: "I am still convinced he is devoted to and want to get things done for Hong Kong."
The latest University of Hong Kong public opinion programme poll showed Leung's popularity has hit a new low since he called for report on teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze, who was caught on video shouting abuse at police over their handling of a clash between Falun Gong supporters and a pro-Beijing group.
Ma says he believes that far from wanting to attack the teacher, Leung wants the report to draw a line under the affair.
"Hongkongers seem more and more focused on issues such as … individuals' remarks, unpleasant behaviour or rivalry among different groups. But we tend to ignore the major issues," he says.
Ma looked back to the 1990s when, as a director of Japanese construction giant Kumagai Gumi's Hong Kong operation, he saw the huge airport core programme completed in just six years. "Nowadays you can ask yourself, what did we do in the last six years?" he says. "If you don't do things, other fast-growing economies including Singapore will catch up."
Ma recalled a meeting in 2004 with Lee Hsien Loong, then Singapore's deputy prime minister, now prime minister. Lee told him his government had decided to push ahead with casinos "because Hong Kong was growing fast in many aspects, including tourism, so Singapore must do something, otherwise our economy will lag behind".
Ma laments that while Singapore is thriving, it could take years for minor works like a promenade on Lantau to be completed, and the start of construction on the first building for the West Kowloon Cultural District, due next month, comes 15 years after the idea was first mooted.
He believes something must be done to boost Hong Kong's social and economic momentum, and that people should give Leung more time to solve deep-rooted problems.
"I was also heavily criticised during my first year in office," Ma says. "I hope that when the political storm gradually subsides, the impression people have of Leung will not be that bad. Let us give him some time."
Fred Ma's multiple roles
Posts: Honorary professor, school of economics and finance, University of Hong Kong; professor of finance, Polytechnic University; non-executive director, Husky Energy, Hutchison Port Holdings, Agricultural Bank of China, Aluminum Corporation of China, China Mobile, and the MTR Corporation.
Education: Economics and history degree from the University of Hong Kong
Career: 1973-1980 Credit analyst at Chase Manhattan Bank, Hong Kong and New York; 1980-90 Works at securities house Pitfield MacKay Ross & Co, which later becomes RBC Dominion Securities; 1990-98 Executive director and later managing director, Kumagai Gumi (HK); 1998-2001 Asia-Pacific managing director for global private banking at Chase Manhattan; 2001-02 Executive director, PCCW; 2002-07 Secretary for financial services and the treasury; 2007-08 Secretary for commerce and economic development; 2009-12 non-executive director and chairman, China Strategic Holdings