Stripped of political tragedy and pathos, the scandals that have overtaken Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's stellar career of public service are a reminder that no one is above the law in this city. With hindsight, how he must regret allowing himself to be made the exception that finally proved the rule, when his government rebuffed attempts in 2008 to bring the chief executive under prevention of bribery rules that apply to political appointees and top civil servants. Had it adopted the change, the mere contemplation of favours from tycoons surely would have set alarm bells ringing. Accepting them would hardly have been worth the risk to his reputation. Because he did, such indiscretions are now certain to be criminalised under proposals by an independent committee.
Tsang set up the committee in response to public outrage over a series of scandals involving luxury travel provided for him by tycoon friends and a bargain deal to rent a luxury Shenzhen penthouse when he leaves office at the end of this month. Led by former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, the committee rightly found the exemption of the chief executive from rules covering all other political appointees to be 'totally inappropriate'. Sections 3 and 8 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance cover soliciting or accepting an advantage and the bribery of civil servants. The committee's proposals effectively extend these provisions to cover the chief executive. It was these sections that lawmakers also wanted to extend so that the chief executive came under the law.
It would become a criminal offence for the chief executive to solicit or accept any advantage without the permission of a statutory independent committee, and for anyone to offer it without lawful excuse. This proposal should be implemented without delay.
Tsang admits his handling of the issues has shaken public confidence and accepted all the recommendations by the committee and by the Audit Commission, which has criticised extravagant overseas travel bookings by the chief executive's office. We have no argument with a measure of VIP treatment, at taxpayers' expense, on official travel that befits the office of Hong Kong's leader, but a US$6,900-a-night presidential suite in Brazil, used only for a 25-minute staff meeting, raises questions about the common sense of his advisers.
The important thing now is to close a gaping loophole in the laws governing conduct in public office. Tsang has promised to work with incoming chief executive Leung Chun-ying to implement the recommendations, which Leung has pledged to do as soon as possible. For the sake of restoring public confidence, Tsang should make it the priority of his last month in office. Leung has been saying the right things. We trust that when it comes to action, his administration will do a better job of ensuring that government is seen to be clean.