THE apparent decision by members of the Executive Council not to declare their share dealings is a giant leap backwards for open government in Hong Kong. It is a decision that adds nothing to the lustre of those who made it, sends precisely the wrong message at exactly the wrong time to officials at every level in the public and private sectors and raises questions about the abilities, sophistication and priorities of some Exco members. While no one would suggest that Exco members are dishonest, members are unnecessarily making it look as if they have something to hide. At a time when Hong Kong is in particular need of forward thinking, the decision indicates that Exco members are more interested in covering their rears; when the public hopes for selflessness and candour from senior officials, it suggests selfishness and secretiveness. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the decision merely revolved around consideration to disclose dealings to the Exco secretariat, and not, as should have been the case, to the general public. Those Exco members who opposed more openness would appear to have lost sight of the fact that the importance of their office is that it gives them the privilege of serving the public at the highest level. Such service should sometimes involve sacrifice, and anyone putting personal interests ahead of the public interest does not deserve to be on Exco. Governor Chris Patten has publicly stressed the importance of openness at this time, and he is right. Amid widespread public suspicion that business leaders are cutting deals with China, that journalists are exercising self-censorship and that dishonesty is rising ahead of 1997, political leaders should learn the joys of self-sacrifice and of leading by example. In the light of allegations that the former acting secretary for works, Kenneth Kwok Wai-kai, abused his position, and of a report suggesting that fraud is widespread, the Exco decision is even more extraordinary. The fact that Exco members have access to non-public, market-sensitive information makes full public disclosure essential; the fact that Exco members also hold directorships in large listed companies merely highlights the potential for apparent conflicts of interest. Maybe the Exco members who opposed disclosure have been watching too many American Express advertisements. They know membership has its privileges, but lack the sophistication to understand that it also has its responsibilities.