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Why the civil service needs expats

RECENT months have seen the Association of Expatriate Civil Servants stepping up its campaign against localisation of the civil service.

Localisation is said to be morally wrong because it discriminates on the basis of race.

That argument presupposes a general homogeneity between officers irrespective of race.

It is claimed many expatriate officers are essentially ''locals'', but long stay and mixed marriage are the only examples they can give. With respect, the real test of a local must be the degree of social integration.

It implies major personal commitments.

For most expatriates, adjustment to Hongkong society remains perpetually peripheral.

They adapt to the climate, the diet, the work and the human congestion. Few develop any personal relationship with the locals and the only Chinese they meet are work-related.

Few see the need to become proficient in Cantonese, not to mention Chinese calligraphy.

The indifference is often passed on to the children, most regrettably in the case of Eurasians. Ironically, the same criticisms are often directed at the Chinese overseas.

The relatively advantaged position of our expatriates does not facilitate integration. Many of Hongkong's pervasive problems do not impact on them.

Housing difficulties, heavy family commitments, split couples (spouse awaiting green card in Canada), even triads are all but facts and figures.

Insulation from mainstream society, for whatever reason, blurs the problems. Naturally, expatriates suffer stresses but they lack the kind of experience with which the average Hongkong person can associate.

Their understanding of Hongkong can, at best, be empathetic and impassive, which is how the public perceives it.

To be fair, there are practical difficulties in integrating. Some are not to be overcome by individual effort, and the Chinese are known to have their prejudices.

It would, moreover, be a mistake to underestimate the contribution expatriate civil servants can make, both now and after 1997.

What must be traversed with valour is that it is morally wrong to localise the civil service.

Hongkong is entitled to be administered by people who have come to age with the place and who have undergone the process in a personal way. We need officers who know what it is to be an average member of the public and who can communicate in his language.

Hongkong's long-term interests are best served by civil servants who share the hopes and fears of the people, and who would rejoice over China's achievements.

The valuable experience of expatriate civil services will not be lost by holding closely to the principle that localisation must not be at the expense of merit.

A glance at the statistics will show Government is proceeding with great caution.

The expatriates association says no Hongkong person going overseas suffers the same employment discrimination.

I say it would be a miracle for anyone to get a responsible civil service position if he or she did not speak the native language.

Comparing Hongkong's localisation of the civil service in the context of decolonisation with the employment policy of other countries must necessarily be misconceived and inappropriate. NAME AND ADDRESS SUPPLIED