Soon we won't have Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to kick around any more. He retires on June 30 a political corpse, leaving no legacy to boast of after 40 years in public service. People will remember him as a luxury-loving chief executive who rode the yachts and planes of tycoons, tried to rent a ritzy retirement home and stayed in a US$6,900 a night hotel in Brazil at taxpayers' expense.
Worst of all, his legacy will be that of the first chief executive to be investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and who faced the threat of Legislative Council impeachment. It's easy to kick a person when he is down, especially an unloved leader. Richard Nixon knew that all too well. But is the kicking of Tsang fair?
Defining extravagance when it involves those in high political office is a tricky business. Tung Chee-hwa shunned Government House for reasons unexplained. Taxpayers had to pay for him to remain in his own luxury Mid-Levels flat plus the one next door so he could double the size of his already oversized flat. But, unlike Government House, it still lacked an office. He evicted his chief secretary, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, and remade her office to suit his taste, complete with a private bathroom.
Our colonial governors routinely hobnobbed with tycoons. They even had their own yacht, the Lady Maurine. I was told one governor liked to have the first-class seat next to him paid for but unfilled during official overseas trips. This gave him extra room and allowed his aides in business class to come up for work chats.
US President Barack Obama paid for the house he holidayed in with his family in Hawaii last Christmas. But taxpayers had to cough up US$4million for Air Force One, his staff and security. Should he have flown economy and stayed in a motel?
Should Bill Clinton and his entourage not have taken over an entire Vancouver harbourfront hotel when he attended the 1997 Apec meeting as US president? Should Tung have made do with just his own flat instead of forcing taxpayers to pay for the one next door as well? Should Tsang have settled for a US$4,000 a night hotel instead? Or is US$2,000 more acceptable? Where do you draw the line?
The line between extravagance and need is fuzzy. Some dismiss comparisons between Tsang and other heads of state, saying he is merely a mayor. That is nonsense. He attends Apec and World Trade Organisation meetings alongside other heads of state. The mayors of Shanghai or Beijing do not.
Would the people have caused such a stink if the yachts and planes Tsang rode in belonged to Bill Gates instead of local tycoons? I suspect not. Greed is just the superficial reason Tsang is being vilified. The deeper reason is society's demand to raise the moral bar for our leaders.
That desire intensified after the jaw-dropping revelations during the chief executive election. Tsang's excesses were not an aberration. They were the traditional norm. It's just that he got caught up in the unfortunate position of being chief executive at a time when the people are demanding a rewrite of the moral rules. A rewrite is fine but too high a bar could impair our top leader in representing us abroad.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. email@example.com