THE Financial Secretary, Sir Hamish Macleod, can retire today secure in the knowledge that he has served Hong Kong well over the past four years. But he must also be uncomfortably aware that his successor faces a much more difficult time.
If Sir Hamish is to be faulted, it can only be for having been too prudent. At a time of unprecedented prosperity - his four budgets were marked by continual embarrassment over higher-than-expected surpluses - he arguably could have been more generous with the Government's $151 billion reserves.
But being cautious has its merits at a time when the uncertainties surrounding the 1997 handover make economic stability more essential than ever. Indeed, had it not been for the caution of his stewardship, it is doubtful whether Hong Kong could face the present economic slow-down, as well as any shocks which the final two years of the transition may bring, with such confidence.
On the political front, Sir Hamish will be sorely missed as one of the few voices advocating partnership with the Legislative Council in an administration increasingly intent on pursuing a more confrontational course. The annual round of pre-budget consultations with legislators, which he inaugurated, set an example other civil servants would do well to follow. It is to be hoped that they will survive his departure.
Yet, for all Sir Hamish's virtues, he is a product of Hong Kong's colonial past and the localisation of his post is, if anything, somewhat overdue. His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who takes office tomorrow, will face a much rougher ride.
Until China clarifies the matter, he has no job security beyond 1997, has to grapple with an economic situation less rosy than at any time in recent years, and is likely to be caught in the middle between Beijing - which will, in future, be involved in the budgetary process - and a new Legco, out to make the most of its two-year life-span.
But Mr Tsang can, at least, be thankful he inherits an economy which whatever its present hiccups, is fundamentally robust. For this, Hong Kong has much reason to be grateful to Sir Hamish.