FOR many decades, Hong Kong has operated efficiently on a system to which caution was the byword. What we have is distinct, with elite participation in the highest decision making body, the Executive Council, where officials are now in the minority. Lay members have been chosen for their ability, depth of experience, expertise and character rather than political savvy or aptitude for publicity stunts. The good thing about this is the route to such appointments runs through various associations or committees rather than electioneering. Second, we have 400 consultative bodies and statutory authorities where officials, the grassroots representatives, and the 'customers' make contact and exchange ideas. This mix of backgrounds and views has given government the direction and feedback to administrate effectively and prudently. We have not been hostage to lobbies, unions, regional interests, opinion polls and powerbrokers. As such, the decisions reached and discharged have helped all. Thirdly, we have a professional, able and conscientious civil service not subject to the whims or dictate of parties. Our mandarins can plan for the future and execute policies under proper public scrutiny without too many distractions, too much distress or the need to pander to the champions of the 'masses'. Their success is written in housing, health care, education, welfare, and other programmes as well as in law and order which underscores our economic vitality, ensures our social stability and equips us to handle our competitors. In recent years, partly because of the 1997 factor, a fourth element of reforms, politicians and parties has taken shape. This is inevitable because it is a part of human progression and I am glad that it is finally taking place after 150 years of colonial rule. We must integrate our politicians with Exco, the consultative bodies and the civil service in a seamless working arrangement where each can do its part without offending the others. I have no illusions that this will be easy or simple. If we manage, and I am sure we will with patience and tolerance, we can improve on what we had and be able to look back on the exercise as worthwhile. There is no set formula for achieving this because our system is unique, but we do have a guiding principle - to keep the benefits of the old and to adapt to the new with minimal disruption to the lives of the citizens who should not have to fret over how they are governed. What is hard is being made more difficult by some politicians too eager to assert themselves and too dogmatic to respect other opinions. They do that by, for example, treating civil servants as public enemies and by grilling them as though administrators were criminals. This is terribly unfair on our mandarins who care no less about the community than their interrogators and have consistently fulfilled their responsibilities with the whole of Hong Kong in mind as it should be, as they are paid to do. Some senior officials I know are retiring from the Government, not because of disquiet about the future, but because of personal anguish at their humiliation and the overwhelming pressure from legislators and others. I abhor the adversarial approach to public life because it is so unnecessary except as a quick way for some politicians to achieve prominence at our and civil servants' expense. The elite too is being shunted out of the policy arena and their input elsewhere has been denigrated. The district boards and the municipal councils, which were not political assemblies to begin with, have been deprived of appointed members. Gone with them is a diversity of personalities, knowledge and opinions. Today teachers and social workers predominate in the district boards, the municipal councils and also among elected legislators because they have the advantage of time and contacts with the electorate over other professionals and businessmen who cannot, and would not, cultivate grassroots backing. To strike a balance in the district boards and the municipal councils, we may have to restore appointments based not on political patronage, but the proven record of the nominees. We have to achieve consensus on crucial issues, avoid domination by any group and start a dialogue where harangue is the rule. We have to place the premium back on civic virtues rather than sheer political verve. At the end of this trial, Hong Kong, I hope, will retain a unique and successful governing system dedicated to good administration, economic growth and a fair society while meeting the ambitions of our politicians. I think it is wrong to destroy what we have had with a head-long rush towards democracy which has to be a vehicle for superior, accountable government rather than an end or a lever for grabbing power. The politicians and their parties are the cipher in the Hong Kong equation. Whether we agree with them or not, we owe it to everyone to listen. To bridge the gap between the various groups and interests, we must exercise commonsense, care, get involved, vote, run for office, accept future appointments and invite as broad a range of people as possible to all aspects of decision making without undermining the executive. If we succeed in integrating our politicians into the governance of Hong Kong, then we can be a model for others in a similar bind. We are lucky to have had so many able individuals keen to participate in Exco, Legco, the consultative bodies, district boards and statutory authorities - often at considerable sacrifice of time and money. There are many others just as willing to carry on the duty. To prevail, we have to get down to work, never shrink from the challenge, and bring Hong Kong to a higher level. Just preservation is not good enough. We have to advance, for going ahead is our credo.