Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has pledged to spell out his thoughts in a detailed policy platform, even though it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will become Hong Kong's next chief executive. Still, this is what he has rightly decided to do, to give himself a measure of popular legitimacy. While Hong Kong's electoral system entrusts the right to choose its most senior leader to just the 800-member Election Committee, no candidate can afford not to give a full account of his action plan to the public in the current political climate. Mr Tsang hopes that a well-received platform that reflects the genuine concerns of the population will boost his popularity ratings. Drafting the platform will be easy, but implementing it is not. As Mr Tsang will serve only the remainder of the term of his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, his tenure will span just about two years before it ends on June 30, 2007. As the government machinery will gear down towards the end of 2006, in anticipation of the election of the next chief executive, Mr Tsang will effectively have only about 18 months to achieve what he wants to accomplish. Moreover, the central government has indicated through various channels that it wants Mr Tsang to keep the Tung team intact and allow the ministers to complete their unfinished business over the next two years. Whether he will be able to get the support of the ministers to put his words into action remains to be seen. Some of the ministers, including Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, are known to also harbour ambitions for the top job. The next two years are also critical to them, as with Mr Tsang, as a period in which they could score points for their own campaigns to become the third chief executive from July 2007. So far, Mr Tsang has not said whether he aims to seek re-election in 2007; he refuses to answer questions until he has prepared his platform. But sources close to Mr Tsang have said that as far as social policies are concerned, he regards education and the environment as areas that the public cares about most, citing the findings of public-opinion surveys conducted by the government. During his career in government, Mr Tsang has not served in any offices directly involved in the education and environment portfolios. But as financial secretary and chief secretary successively over the past 10 years, he is well aware of how government policies in those two areas evolved. As financial secretary, one of his major duties was to find resources to implement approved government policies. As chief secretary, he played a key role in co-ordinating the initiatives of various bureaus. Mr Tsang is no doubt aware that although recurrent spending on education has grown by 88 per cent since 1994-95, neither teachers, nor schools nor parents are any happier with the state of the system. Teachers complain that they are suffocating under education reforms launched after the handover, while the fear of losing their jobs due to school closures caused by a shrinking youth population has seriously affected morale. The mother-tongue education policy and other perceived faults with our schools have prompted more parents to send their children to international schools, or overseas. Over the past year, Professor Li has clashed repeatedly with the Professional Teachers' Union and several leading legislators for refusing to commit more resources to reduce class sizes and stop school closures. Despite initial signs of more lively teaching and learning inside classrooms, many believe it will be years before the fruits of education reform manifest themselves. As financial secretary and then chief secretary, Mr Tsang has not had to bear the brunt of any criticism. As chief executive, however, he will no longer be able to stay out of the fray, whether or not he and Professor Li think alike. On the environment, Mr Tsang has been chairman of the Council for Sustainable Development since it was set up in 2003. The council comprises official and lay representatives, and is responsible for formulating a strategy for sustainable development that will integrate economic, social and environmental perspectives. Since 1997, the Tung administration has made significant progress in lowering emissions, stepping up sewage treatment and reducing solid waste. But the improvements Hong Kong achieved within its boundaries have been largely negated by pollutants discharged by mainland-based industries across the Pearl River Delta. Today, the skies in Hong Kong are no clearer than they were 10 years ago. In fact, visibility has worsened, with Victoria Harbour, our most valuable tourism asset, clouded in smog on most days. Getting our mainland neighbours to lift their game in protecting the environment will critically test Mr Tsang's political skills in dealing with his counterparts in Guangdong. As financial secretary, Mr Tsang was a champion of the user-pays principle. It remains to be seen whether as chief executive, he will live up to what he preaches by persuading political opposition to back the raising of charges for sewage treatment and the disposal of solid waste. It will also be interesting to see how he deals with the other ministers' wishes to leave their own lasting legacies by pushing through controversial initiatives over the next two years that may backfire on him. For example, funding our heavily subsidised health and welfare system with a low tax regime has long been identified as a major issue since the 1990s, but political calculations have so far prevented any major shake-ups. Since becoming Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food last year, York Chow Yat-ngok has shown a determination to crack the issue. But any reforms he introduces are likely to mean charging patients higher fees and limiting entitlements - which will not endear Dr Chow and the Tsang administration to the public. Similarly, the row kicked up by Dr Chow's proposal to require single parents to work after their children have turned six could prove equally explosive. On the housing front, although the private property market is recovering, the public housing programme is in disarray. The Housing Authority's previous mode of operation - building subsidised flats for sale and using the profits to build rental units for low-income households - became history following the abolition of the Home Ownership Scheme and shelving of the Tenants' Purchase Scheme in 2002. Since then, the supply of public housing units has fallen substantially, as no more tenants are vacating their units on buying HOS flats, and the authority can only draw on its reserves to fund a modest construction programme. Meanwhile, demand for public housing has surged, despite a shrinking population, because more young singletons are exercising their right to get a subsidised rental unit. But trying to boost supply by evicting well-off tenants, or limit demand by imposing restrictions on young singletons, are both socially disruptive options. Getting employers and labour groups to reach a consensus over the issues of maximum working hours and a minimum wage will also prove to be trying tasks for Mr Tsang. This followed the Tung administration's decision early this year to adopt an 'open mind' on the issues, ditching the government's long-time opposition. Another sensitive issue concerns RTHK, a public broadcaster with a reputation for biting the hands that feeds it. Over the years, the station has been under pressure from the pro-Beijing camp to behave more like a government broadcaster by toning down its critical public-affairs programmes. Mr Tsang is believed to feel that the station might have gone beyond its remit, not so much by airing programmes critical of the government, but in broadcasting horse races and organising hit song contests that could be aired by commercial broadcasters. As one who takes great pride in being a strong defender of free speech, whether he would make the politically sensitive move of asking the station to change course, even if it might not involve the public affairs programmes, remains to be seen. Indeed, with a full range of hot issues awaiting the government's attention, but only 18 months to sort through them, Mr Tsang's juggling skills will be put to the test. When his platform comes out, people will not simply look at his pledges of how to make Hong Kong better. They will seek clues of whether he has the ambition to serve seven, if not 12, years.