It was mere coincidence that three scandal-hit officials of the previous administration made headlines again on the same day last month. In a spectacular fall from grace, former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan was declared bankrupt in addition to the corruption charges he faces. This came as a lower court handed down the penalty in an illegal-basement fiasco that derailed former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen's bid to become the city's leader. Separately, former ICAC chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming was censured by Legco. It said his lavish work style had damaged the anti-graft agency's credibility. The three cases are unrelated. But in the world of politics, perception is everything. It would not be surprising if public servants are seen as less trustworthy than they used to be.
The cases stem from before Leung Chun-ying took over. But, sadly, his team has seen no less trouble. Two executive councillors have already quit in the wake of scandals, while an exodus among the senior ranks continues. Five political appointees have resigned from the government since July last year. But the impact is played down by the chief executive.
Officials today are not necessarily more corrupt or less competent. The controversies are more a reflection of a changing political environment and public expectations. The downfall of some prominent figures stemmed from misdeeds that only came into the spotlight as a result of intense public scrutiny recently. In the case of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the lavish wining and dining was revealed by the media only after Tong had finished his five-year stint last year. He argued that some expenditures were standard practice and he challenged lawmakers to make clear what rules had been breached. That Tong remains defiant is regrettable. Practices unquestioned in the past are not necessarily acceptable today. The outcry against Tong's behaviour is strong evidence of public disapproval. There still seems to be a major gap between official conduct and public expectations.
Admittedly, the political environment has made governance more difficult today. Gone are the days when wrongdoing in officialdom could be hushed up without consequence. With community expectations rising and the media increasingly assertive, so are the demands for transparency and accountability. Officials are required to conduct themselves in a way that meets the highest standard at all times and be prepared for harsh scrutiny and attack in case of inadequacies.