Ombudsman's demanding role

OMBUDSMAN Andrew So Kwok-wing has won praise for pointing out government injustice wherever he finds it - but his success is forcing him to work ever harder.

In his first 15 months as Commissioner for Administrative Complaints, the former primary school teacher and legislator has seen his workload increase eight-fold.

'If the public wants me to do more, of course I don't mind extending my working hours,' Mr So said.

In his office is a calligraphy scroll he did himself, warning Hong Kong civil servants: 'Be sensible and reasonable, and justice will clear you from darkness.' Mr So works six days a week, rising at 5 am to exercise, read or practise his calligraphy before going to the office, where he remains into the evening.

'It is very judgmental work. Calligraphy helps me to remain calm, concentrate and be patient,' he said.

Mr So, 55, took over from Arthur Garcia in February 1994, to challenge government maladministration on behalf of the public.

His workload has soared alarmingly. In the 1993-94 financial year, he fielded 173 complaints. But from July 1994 to April this year, 1,072 complaints flooded in.

Mr So explains the rise by saying more people have confidence in the office and are prepared to trust the commissioner with their complaints.

Last June, changes ensured people could lodge complaints directly with the legislator. Previously, cases had to be referred.

Mr So has proposed his office examine complaints about the district boards and police clerical staff, and is awaiting a reply.

His report on the Hong Kong Stadium was widely thought to have sparked the stepping-down of former Secretary for Recreation and Culture, James So Yiu-cho.

Mr So also initiated an investigation into policies on illegal rooftop structures, and recently recommended the government review its policy on demolishing them. The Buildings Department was given three months to formulate a response.

The eldest son of a Catholic family of 10, brought up by parents who ran a grocery store, Mr So said he realised the significance of love, sharing, justice and peace and has taken these virtues as his motto.

'I would not describe myself as a devoted Catholic, but I have learned these things from God,' he said.

Formerly international vice-president of the International Credit Union, he has travelled to more than 30 countries including Kenya, Zambia, China and India in the past two decades.

Active participation in international affairs would allow the commissioner to gain a foreign passport, but he has decided against applying.

He vows to stay in Hong Kong beyond 1997.

Speaking of his own performance during 15 months in office, the Ombudsman said the public should be his judge.

The Sunday Morning Post took Mr So at his word and asked for opinions.

'I give him 75 marks [out of 100] because he has done an adequate job so far. But I am sure he will be more effective in the future,' said Allen Lee Peng-fei, Liberal Party chief.

Tsang Yok-sing, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, said: 'The Ombudsman is worth 80 marks. The reports released have gained public support.

'He is even more critical than his predecessor and the office, under his leadership, is now recognised by the public.' Vice-chairman of the Democratic Party Yeung Sum said: 'The cases he has reviewed have begun to establish his credibility with the public. But there's a need to widen the scope of investigations to include all statutory bodies.' Social activist and director of the Society for Community Organisations Ho Hei-wah said Mr So's performance had been 'better than expected, since he was a rather conservative legislator in the past'.