THERE can be few civil servants whose retirement is marked by a CD of love songs. Especially one who admits to ''terrifying'' her staff. But then Elizabeth Wong Chien Chi-lien, or Libby as friends and colleagues call her, has never been a conventional bureaucrat. Due to step down this week from her post as Secretary for Health and Welfare, Mrs Wong's straight-talking, confrontational approach is aeons away from that of the traditional mandarin. And it is one that has caused her peers to draw breath many times in her quarter century of government service. ''I don't spare words,'' she says, smiling, in her spacious Lower Albert Road office. ''I can either blow my top or not blow my top. It makes no difference whether you're upsetting people. The important thing is to fulfil a purpose to meet an objective. ''My staff tolerate my occasional rudeness. I tell it like it is. I don't believe in being dishonest.'' Mrs Wong was cautioned early in her career for not being a ''grey'' enough civil servant. She used to write funny minutes, she says, and refused to conform to the traditional bureaucratic mould. Later in her career, she appeared to take pleasure in her reputation for being outspoken and even ''outrageous''. This is the woman who made headlines when she publicly asked who was telling her ''a bloody lie'' about nursing shortages, following conflicting reports which made her look dishonest. Many, including Mrs Wong herself, believe her frankness is refreshing in a world of careful soundbites. But it is also an attitude that has got her into trouble and some feel it may be part of the reason she was not asked to stay on in her post. They quote an incident during the nurses' dispute earlier this year, in which Mrs Wong was threatened with a mass work-to-rule action over ''irresponsible remarks'' she was alleged to have made. She says she was often misrepresented. ''I never feast on what the newspapers say [about me],'' she says. ''They've got me into trouble in many ways by giving an angle that wasn't mine. The nurses' dispute was one such time. That was very surprising to me. But it doesn't matter as far as I'm concerned because we don't fuss over minor details. ''Too many of us are sensitive about our own importance. One should take one's job very seriously but not oneself. I can laugh at myself,'' she adds, with a smile. However, Mrs Wong's ''early'' retirement [as a New Zealand passport holder she was asked to retire under the localisation process] is, for her, obviously no laughing matter. A woman who naturally chafes against restraints, peppering her conversation with references to ''freedom'', Mrs Wong finds some irony in the fact she is leaving because she is being an obedient civil servant. ''The fact is I'm being chucked out of the system because I'm playing by the rules. It's ironic but life is full of ironic things,'' she says. ''I really feel that if I had the choice I would have stayed on. But the Government chose to ask me to leave in honour of the localisation policy which I feel is right. I could have appealed if I felt it was wrong.'' She insists she is not bitter. ''I accept that because of my expat status I'm forced out. That, as a system goes, is acceptable because it's the only policy we've got. But it doesn't in my opinion make it right. Because the ultimate solution is to make any job in the Government very competitive and the best person for the job should get it.'' It is hard not to to avoid the feeling that, in Libby Wong's eyes, the best person for the job is herself. ''I think I've proved myself. It's not where I am, I mean I can be quite happy at a less exalted position. It's a question of my own personal best,'' she says. ''In the 25 years of my government career I can say I have achieved something in almost every job I have done, something that hasn't been done before. I've always managed to start great waves!'' Mrs Wong has worked in a wider variety of departments than possibly any other person in the Government. She was successful in the Finance branch and the Lands and Works Department before moving into the sphere of social welfare. She was promoted to the post of Health and Welfare Secretary in January 1990. She says that, with hindsight, she wouldn't do anything differently. Her only possible regret is the amount of things left to do and the lack of time remaining to do them. Her belief in herself, she adds, came not from some ''vainglorious'' self-ambition, but from her ability to draw the best out of a team. She is, she says, a tough taskmaster. ''Oh yes,'' she says, laughing. ''But I manage to get the best from people. They actually deliver. There are many jobs which are impossible at the time. You demand certain things to be done and it sounds so unreasonable at the time. A couple of young guys who joined us were terrified of me! But people manage to deliver and deliver well.'' And love her or hate her, Mrs Wong instils tremendous loyalty in her colleagues. Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, head of the Hospital Authority, is a case in point. In the past, Mrs Wong has described her relationship with him as full of ''conflicts'' and ''strain'' (it was his advice that led her to claim there was no nursing shortage). Yet the same Dr Yeoh gave an emotion-filled rendition of Love Me Tender on the Serenading Libby Wong For Charity CD released last week. Even Legislative Council member Dr Leong Che-hung is not immune to the charms of the woman he refers to as his ''honourable opponent''. In his own Ode To Libby Wong he says: ''To say she is a woman with character is to express the biggest understatement of the year . . . if grace is synonymous with the fair sex then amazing grace comes to Libby Wong as second nature.'' Quoting the author J. M. Barrie, he adds: ''It's a sort of bloom on a woman . . . if you have it you don't need much else and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter what else you have.'' Mrs Wong takes this without so much as a blush. ''Yes I do think that women in power can bloom. Look at Anson [Chan Fang On-sang]. I've never seen her so beautiful. I think she really shines,'' she says, forestalling any suggestion that she may be jealous of the Chief Secretary's success. Mrs Wong is generous to a fault about the appearance and success of her fellow colleagues, especially the women. But she admits one of the things she'll miss most is the ''rough and tumble'' of the political arena. ''It's great as the system goes and it's totally impersonal. We're close friends but that doesn't mean we can't fight. In fact we'll probably fight harder,'' she says. Belying her confrontational stance, Mrs Wong stands out as the only woman in Government who wears a cheongsam every day. It is not vanity, she says, but a desire not to have to think too hard about her appearance. ''I'm like a cat - I don't mean the scratching kind - I'm a creature of habit. I have a chair at home, for instance, which is decidedly mine. I've been wearing the same hairstyle for 33 years, since my final year at University. It started off as a convenience thing. I used to go to hair stylists but felt it was very time consuming and money consuming.'' Mrs Wong does confess to enjoying her ''extravagant moments'', however, adding that she owns a couple of ''very expensive'' dresses. These extravagances she links to her family - her wedding anniversary (she has been married for 25 years), her son's graduation and her daughter's wedding. But apart from that the Wong family appear to give each other an unusual amount of space. Her daughter, a doctor in New Zealand, vowed never to return to Hong Kong while her mother remained as Secretary for Health and Welfare. ''She felt it was probable I'd either tie her down or she'd tie me down,'' Mrs Wong says. ''We're all very different people. We tend to be very individualistic. Certainly my kids tend to do their own thing. My daughter married a person of her own choice and my son is dating whoever he wants to date. We're all freedom fighters!'' AND she says she is unlikely to ''disappear into the woods'' in New Zealand for a while yet. In fact, she drops large hints she may not have left the political arena for good. ''I hope to be able to take some part in life in Hong Kong. I might go into 'real' politics. I mean standing for election. I haven't made up my mind because I've got to take my family into account. But I feel that in Hong Kong you need a lot of people who can take a little bit of control of themselves.'' Meanwhile, she relishes the chance to do things she has wanted to do ''for ages''. She may teach or lecture, if given the opportunity. (''After 25 years I think I know a little about health reform.'') She wants to be a potter. Predictably, perhaps, she wants to do voluntary work. And she wants to write. She has wanted to write a book for 20 years. ''I'm not interested in immortality but I'm interested in trying to describe the situation at a particular time. Storytelling, really. Everybody has a story to tell and I'm one of the first generation of the first exodus after the war.'' So is an Elizabeth Wong autobiography in the pipeline? She dismisses the suggestion as rubbish. ''Autobiography? My autobiography would be terribly boring. You need a Margaret Thatcher or a Princess Diana. I think it would be really ostentatious to the first degree to talk about an autobiography. It's too presumptuous.'' She professes to being more interested in other people's stories. ''In years to come I will probably write biographies of leading people. I think Anson Chan would be a nice person. Have I asked her? No, it's just an idea. Or like [dissident] Lau Shan-ching - he's a personality. At least he has a story.'' It is impossible not to suspect Mrs Wong's story is not yet a closed book. Like Lady Thatcher, who appeared to lose her ''bloom'' when she was ejected from the Conservative party leadership, one suspects Mrs Wong is not ready to relinquish political power. But paradoxically for such a high-profile figure, just as she believed writing her autobiography would be vain, she insisted her political career was always based on a desire to serve, rather than self ambition. ''I chose government as real career for 25 years,'' Mrs Wong says. ''At one of the initial interviews somebody asked me 'Why do you want to join the civil service?' and I said 'I want to serve'. The man said: 'What a lot of rubbish. Such a cliche.' 'But I really mean it,' I told him. ''It may sound kind of corny,'' she says now, ''but I really do mean it.''