Ronald Reagan, who was eager to cut back the federal bureaucracy during his presidency, once asserted that the government should only do things that people could not do for themselves. Private and commercial disputes are some of those things from which a liberal government would like to excuse itself. The Hong Kong administration for decades managed to stand aloof from arguments between business parties as well as employers and their employees, as long as they stayed within the law. The SAR Government, however, seems to be departing from this cherished tradition. Li Ka-shing's outburst against what he saw as a deterioration in the business environment has brought this Government tendency into focus. Last Wednesday, the newspaper headlines were dominated by Mr Li's attack on those seeking not to honour the terms of real-estate agreements with his group. That day the electronic media quoted an anonymous official spokesman saying that the Government had no response to the comments of an individual business figure. The line apparently originated from the Finance Bureau. This position was not unreasonable. After all the Government can hardly respond to the plans of every entrepreneur. A more seasoned reply might, perhaps, have added that the SAR remained one of the most attractive places to do business despite the current financial turmoil, as confirmed by various recent independent assessments. The administration's effort in staying at arm's length from private sector disputes was evident in the recent confrontation between Hongkong Telecom and its employees. The Government was at pains to clarify that, contrary to public belief, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had not got his fingers into the dispute. Nonetheless, the initial 'hands off' response to Mr Li's remarks was negated within hours, first by the Chief Executive and then his Chief Secretary for Administration, Anson Chan Fang On-sang. Mr Tung and Mrs Chan commented on Mr Li's complaints on the same day. Mr Tung left the impression that he acquiesced with Mr Li. 'Hong Kong's success has always been based on the rule of law,' he maintained, 'and this is also fundamental in attracting both Hong Kong people's investment as well as overseas investment. So from that point of view, it is important for all of us to abide by the terms and conditions of contract.' The rule of law, as Mr Tung pointed out, is fundamental to Hong Kong's future. But there is nothing against the law preventing flat buyers exerting political pressure on developers to revise some of the terms in their favour. For their part, the developers can simply ignore the nuisance. Others, including the Housing Society, took a more lenient approach and offered more breathing space for the aggrieved buyers. In the final analysis, the developers can still call the tune. There is no evidence that the rule of law is in jeopardy, as Mr Tung implied. Mrs Chan went a step further than her boss by taking the initiative to call Mr Li. She was keen to explain afterwards that the billionaires' verbal assault was not levelled at the Government. It used to be those politicians thirsty for media exposure who would repeat in public their dialogue with senior officials in exchange for a few column inches. There is apparently a reversal of roles with one of the richest figures in town entering the scene. Fairly or not, Mr Tung has often been ridiculed by the press for being media-shy. Yet, there are times when one can be more eloquent by remaining silent.