It's a cliche to say 'once a civil servant, always a civil servant'. But, if you have to condense the chief executive's long and pitiful mea culpa to the legislature, that was pretty much his explanation of what went wrong.
He said that after four decades in the civil service, he knew what the standards for correct conduct were and that he had never deviated from them. That explains his initial indignation when media reports surfaced about his hobnobbing with tycoons in their private jets and luxury yachts. Besides casting doubts on his integrity, some reports also, unfairly, accused him of collusion with those tycoons and their political associates.
But he has been humbled, Tsang told lawmakers, because society has changed and people demand higher standards and greater transparency than before. But is that true? Do people really expect more of their leaders or is it rather that Tsang never made the transition from being a top civil servant to a real leader? The conduct of a political leader is obviously scrutinised differently than that of functionaries, however senior they may be.
Tsang admitted there were actually no explicit rules governing the acceptance of advantages by someone in his position. But he said he was making things right by appointing a committee headed by former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang to recommend new rules for principal officials and future chief executives to prevent conflicts of interest. And of course, they will need it because Tsang has staffed his government with career civil service bureaucrats like himself!
But there can be no rule books spelling out what level of contact with tycoons or kinds of gifts is acceptable for political leaders. Such leaders must judge and act cautiously so that they are not seen as being in the pocket of the rich and powerful, and that their service is for everyone, rich or poor, in the community.
Alas, it's now too late for Tsang.