Doing it just because you can spells trouble for powerful

The jailing of former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang shows how the mighty are most vulnerable to temptation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 9:40pm

How the mighty have fallen! I have my problem with Donald Tsang Yam-kuen – he chose to do nothing when something effective could still be done about the runaway property market, apart from halting land development and ceasingHome Ownership Scheme flats altogether.

But watching the 72-year-old former chief executive handcuffed and taken to a maximum security prison, I couldn’t help but feel traumatised and diminished. This is what happens when political leaders so publicly and so spectacularly fall from grace. They don’t just disqualify themselves from leadership and tarnish their legacy but devastate those who have followed them.

Reactions to hisconviction range from confusion to disbelief to fury. Some feel sorrow and pity for a dedicatedadministrator whose long, distinguished service is now forever blemished. Some look for all the dirty details of the case, secretly happy to see another authority figure go down.

For those who have always harboured a deep distrust of the government, this confirms their worst fears and suspicions about the ruling class. These are consequences of a leadership failure that seep into society. Martin Luther King said when the leader falls, everyone is punished. So true.

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The charge of which Tsang was convicted, misconduct in office, may seem trivial. Compare this, for example, to the charges brought against Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s former president who was sentenced to life in prison eight years ago. He was found guilty of embezzling from a special presidential office fund, accepting bribes in connection with a land deal, laundering money through Swiss bank accounts and forging documents. What Tsang did, by comparison, seemed so inconsequential that it should have got the attention of the tabloid press, not the court.

Yet there is nothing trivial about the motive and forces that lie behind Tsang’s misconduct. It’s in our nature to manipulate an outcome in our favour by using whatever means within our powers. When a man possesses a certain amount of power, therefore, the temptation has always been to abuse that power for self interest and personal gains. This temptation is not something that falls on a corrupted few, but a tendency common to us all. Those who hold the most power, however, are most vulnerable to this temptation.

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So the most powerful are also the most vulnerable. This paradox goes a long way towards explaining some of the strange things that powerful men do. To this day, many still find incomprehensible why Bill Clinton had oral sex with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. When confronted about this by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes, Clinton famously replied, “I think I did something for the worst possible reason – just because I could.”

Just because I could. That’s the voice of power succumbing to temptation. Donald Tsang did something because he could. Let that be a lesson for our next chief executive.

Perry Lam is a cultural critic