FOR the first time in years, civil servants have accepted their annual pay offer without complaint. Gone are the days when staff associations grumbled and threatened action - or inaction - over the pay rises still 'owed' them from the days when Lord Wilson's government demanded they tighten their belts as an example to industry. Now they are happily pocketing their award of 11 per cent - 1.5 percentage points above the current rate of inflation . . . and no wonder. Government officials are rather better protected from the vagaries of the employment market than their counterparts in the private sector; but with unemployment running at three per cent and rising, this is no time to be looking gift horses in the mouth. Even if you are a civil servant. High though it is, the civil service pay rise - which includes a merit increment as well as the annual award - is not out of line with current trends. On the contrary, it is based on private sector pay over the previous year. If private sector pay increases over the next 12 months are moderate, the civil service will get a smaller rise next year. What makes the present rise inflationary, however, is that it will now be seen as a benchmark for the private sector for the coming pay-round, despite the present slowdown in the economy. The argument put forward by Michael Sze Cho-cheung, the Secretary for the Civil Service, that government jobs are too small a part of the employment market to have any knock-on effect does not bear serious examination. The Government is the territory's largest employer. It cannot pretend the private sector does not look to it for guidance. In deciding civil service pay, the Government is forced to perform a delicate balancing act. If pay scales begin to lag behind the public sector, it will be harder to attract the best people to government service. In the longer term, a low-pay policy risks a return to the corruption of a previous era. One need only look over the border to be reminded how abuses thrive when officials believe they are hard done by. Nevertheless, for as long as government officials enjoy a job security and conditions of service denied to most public sector workers, there is little excuse to allow the civil service to set the pace for higher pay trends for the coming year.