Frederick Ma Si-hang's about-turn decision to apologise for the penny-stocks row has triggered a fierce debate over whether Tung Chee-hwa can honour his promise to improve governance and accountability. While allies of Mr Tung have argued that the stock debacle was more a matter of misjudgment of public sentiment than a symptom of inherent fault in the system, critics say the way the government reacted to the political crisis shows that Mr Tung does not yet fully appreciate the concept of accountability. Mr Ma, Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, was among a group of key officials cleared of any wrongdoing by a panel investigating the panic dumping of stocks in July. But he was forced to apologise for the fiasco on Wednesday, a day after politicians and the media had blasted him for earlier refusing to do so. A government source has sought to dampen speculation there were internal disputes over whether Mr Ma should apologise, stating that the minister had simply needed some time to consider how he should react because the report was presented to the government at the very last minute. 'The report has already cleared Mr Ma of any dereliction of duties. Against that background, he needed some time to consider whether he had to apologise - and if so, for what,' the source said. Another senior source also said the delay resulted from a misreading of public sentiment rather than an internal rift. It is understood Mr Ma apologised after Mr Tung, who defended him when asked about the possibility of disciplinary action on Tuesday, gave the nod. Allen Lee Peng-fei, a staunch supporter of the ministerial system and a close ally of Mr Tung, said it was more an issue of ministers being inexperienced rather than an inherent flaw in the system. 'What happened over the past two months were human mistakes rather than problems with the system. 'The ministerial system itself is alright. The problem is the appointees lack political experience and sensitivity,' said the former Liberal Party chief and veteran legislator. Lau Siu-kai, head of the Central Policy Unit, the government think-tank, said people should not 'romanticise' the accountability system. 'If this incident had happened in Britain or other overseas countries, ministers would not have to step down. People know very well it's not the system that has problems. It's a matter of the attitude of individual officials when reacting to the crisis.' Mr Ma's apology was punishment enough for both him and indeed the Tung administration, Professor Lau added. Political commentator Li Pang-kwong, of Lingnan University, said the incident showed not only that the government had weak political judgment but also that it failed to appreciate the essence of political accountability. He said accountability was not just about reacting quickly to a crisis. 'I think the government's top echelon has yet to learn what accountability is all about. 'It means whenever something happens that it is so serious that the public think someone has got to be held responsible, the political appointee in charge of the area should take the blame.' The fact that the government and the ministers do not risk being voted out of office has also made the Tung team less responsive to political crisis, he added. But he believed a standing practice for officials to apologise was emerging following this incident and previous incidents such as the piling scandal involving public housing blocks. 'I think public opinion and the media have exercised their influence this time. Although we don't have anything in black and white, I think the public have gradually built up a norm,' he said. Political scientist Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, of the City University, said the government was not yet prepared to practise accountability. 'People want to know what accountability means, but obviously this incident doesn't help much. 'The purpose of the ministerial system is to improve the performance of the government and restore confidence in governance. The government has certainly squandered this opportunity,' he said. With this apparent 'erosion of legitimacy', Professor Cheng said he was worried that Mr Tung might not win public support for unpopular policies such as trimming the size of the civil service and managing budget deficits.