THE plan by the Customs and Excise Department to privatise some of the more menial tasks currently carried out by government employees is an example that could be followed by other departments controlled by Security Branch and associated in some way with the maintenance of law and order. For a start, it will free expensive government officers for more specialised work. It is also likely to save taxpayers' money in other areas where private firms are able to operate more flexibly. Unlike many Western governments - whose recent mania for privatisation is explained as much by a desire to earn cash by selling off state assets as by a new-found ideological aversion to big government - Hong Kong has few publicly owned enterprises to hive off. What it does have, however, is a large number of labour-intensive jobs, some of them quite skilled, which could be done privately and more efficiently, with lower overheads and half the bureaucracy. Customs and Excise itself could aim higher up the ranks by opening up routine inspection duties to reputable, but thoroughly vetted, private companies. Some other departments could follow suit. Not every aspect of Security Branch work could, of course, be privatised. The public is unlikely to approve of specialised police work, especially investigations, searches and arrests (particularly when they might involve the use of firearms), being farmed out to security companies. But while experiments abroad suggest, for instance, that privatising high-security prisons may be dangerous, there may be room for private companies to operate low-security institutions. There would be public resistance to leaving law and order work to untried operators. But the Customs experiment is a step in the right direction. If it is seen to work, public opinion eventually may accept similar moves at higher ranks.