SPOTLIGHTS have been scanning the territory, seeking out the wanted man. Soon he will be named, thrust into public view and given his sentence - a crucial term as the next Commissioner of Correctional Services. If he keeps his nose clean and does his time quietly he may earn remission for good behaviour. But his stamping ground - Hong Kong's prisons and Vietnamese detention centres - is mined with troubles primed to blow in the run-up to 1997. Sensitive political questions and concerns over the Vietnamese in CSD custody, the mooted possible re-introduction of capital punishment in Hong Kong, as well as China's forced prison labour camps and trade in organs taken from prisoners are some of the obstacles along the way. As early as January, Commissioner Eric McCosh, stung by condemnation of the police and Correctional Services Department's April raid on Vietnamese at Whitehead Detention Centre, will retire aged 57 and pass his baton to a local successor. It has been a sorry year for the CSD. And Mr McCosh, who rose to the rank of police senior assistant commissioner and enjoyed an unblemished 32-year record before being asked to switch to prisons in 1990, has taken much of the backlash on the eve of his retirement. Deputy Commissioner Raymond Lai Ming-kee, 50, a career officer who joined the CSD in 1968, is the logical successor, but a heavy question mark hangs over whether he will get the top job. Compared with Dickensian-like prisons in the United Kingdom, where rioting is commonplace and innumerable reviews aim to identify why administrators are losing control, Hong Kong's overcrowded lock-ups - a kaleidoscope of murderers, triads, sex offenders, drug pedlars and fraudsters - are tame. But the added responsibility for the detention of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers, most of them determined to stay in the forlorn hope of being given a new home, makes the CSD one of the most accident-prone areas of Government. Officers who entered Correctional Services to safeguard and help rehabilitate convicted criminals, have instead found themselves supervising the detention and, more recently, tear-gassing of Vietnamese men, women and children. The strain on staff has been significant, necessitating a range of pacifiers including intensive counselling by in-house psychologists. From his Wan Chai Tower office desk, itself a hand-crafted product of the prison industry, Mr McCosh has turned staff resentment over his appointment as an 'outsider', into respect, according to a number of junior and senior officers and independent sources close to the CSD. When he took over because nobody suitable could be found in the CSD, his predecessor, Chan Wa-shek, described the territory's prisons as being at breaking-point. But Mr McCosh's attention to staff relations and welfare won him wide admiration. He has fought for better salaries and conditions and in one incident earlier this year a potential tragedy was averted at a CSD firing range where an officer from a Vietnamese centre was threatening to shoot himself over stress. Mr McCosh personally persuaded the suicidal man to lay down his gun, then told police to stay out of what was a CSD matter. 'He's been probably our most open and approachable commissioner and he has also made a lot of improvements,' said a CSD insider. 'He has won over those who were disappointed at his appointment and he has not made too many enemies within the service, unlike his deputy.' But in the aftermath of the Whitehead raid, which was heavily criticised on several fronts including what was later determined to be excessive use of force, Vietnamese groups demanded Mr McCosh's resignation. He took it badly because he believed it was a good operation, according to a police officer close to Mr McCosh, adding the vast majority of officers involved still share his view. While Mr McCosh has garnered staff loyalty and boosted morale, Mr Lai has been a focus of resentment from pockets of the CSD. It is Mr Lai who has had to take on many of the disciplinary duties, most recently rapping knuckles over some of the more obvious flaws in the Whitehead raid, and this has adversely affected his standing. As Mr McCosh has artfully played the role of popular leader, Mr Lai has performed the dirty work. Current speculation about Mr Lai's chances of being the next commissioner has bubbled over in the Chinese language press. A stream of articles have questioned his competence, singled him out for criticism over double-dipping into housing privileges and accused him of favouring his proteges. The nature of the speculation has reached the point where the Government believes a deliberate campaign is being waged by CSD factions to undermine his bid to fill Mr McCosh's shoes. 'It is logical for someone like me to want (the job), but it's really inappropriate for me to comment,' Mr Lai said yesterday. There have also been reports that another police officer, perhaps Senior Assistant Commissioner (Director of Management and Inspection Services) Pedro Ching Kwok-ho or Senior Assistant Commissioner Lee Lam-chuen (Director of Personnel and Training) may once again usurp Mr Lai. 'Mr Lai is a very smooth operator, but what does concern us is his failure to see or admit the CSD's mistakes over the Whitehead raid,' said Refugee Concern lawyer, Rob Brook. 'If Lai cannot support the fundamental position of the report by the JPs who investigated the raid, then he has blinkers on, and that is a concern for now and in the future as times get more strained. 'But nobody in the refugee community or in Refugee Concern will shed any tears about Mr McCosh leaving. As far as we are concerned he was completely responsible for the debacle and we have called for his departure under different circumstances. 'We would like to see some imagination and insight from the next commissioner. The Vietnamese are treated with hostility as if they are criminals, when all they have done is flee persecution,' he said. According to Dr Rod Broadhurst, a University of Hong Kong criminologist and lawyer, the standard in modern correctional services is to employ a professional with the expertise and background - unless the service is an incompetent debacle with no managerial skills to draw on. 'It takes time for an outsider to develop the diplomatic skills and know-how to deal with staff and prisoners and the problem is made all the more bloodier because of the Vietnamese migrants in custody,' he said. 'A police or army officer brought in faces a very sharp learning curve to get on top of things,' he said. Ultimately, the recommendation of Mr McCosh, currently attending a seminar in Australia for correctional administrators, will give his choice the best chance. Will it be his former jogging partner, Mr Lai, who last year brushed up on his leadership skills with an intensive four-week 'strategic management' programme at Henley in the United Kingdom?