Lai See

Hong Kong's civil service is stuck in the 1980s

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 9:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 9:41pm

While talking to a businessman involved with one of the chambers of commerce recently, he complained that whenever his chamber went to the government with an initiative it was always greeted with a standard response. "Your idea is a very good one." Secondly: "But it is a sensitive issue and we will have to consider carefully how it will be viewed by the Legislative Council." Thirdly: "Could you please do more to publicly support the government?"

This is hardly the response you'd expect from a government on top of its game. But the sad fact is the government and the civil service appear to be afflicted by a terrible paralysis. Ask any businessman who regularly has to deal with government, and he gives a despairing shrug. The government and the civil service are in "defensive mode" is the frequent refrain. Making a decision or suggesting an initiative have become career threatening actions for civil servants as they fear criticism or being roasted by Legco.

The more cynical among us think this may be no bad thing, since the less they do the better. Indeed, it could be argued that Hong Kong has prospered despite the best efforts of the government. It still remains a good place to set up a business, assuming that is, the current difficulties in getting a bank account are sorted out soon. But the problems of government can only go on for so long.

Recently RTHK's Backchat programme discussed why Hong Kong was slipping down the rankings in the surveys that compare quality of life, ease of doing business and so on. One of the speakers pointed out that it wasn't so much that Hong Kong was slipping backwards but that it was being overtaken by other cities in various respects. One of the most frustrating aspects of Hong Kong is that it is of a size and density, and with access to ideas, that it should be a place where things are done "smartly". It should be a leader in this respect but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

Hong Kong needs to modernise. We have had one of the best waterfronts in the world for years and yet only recently has the public been able to enjoy it. Its development is still hidebound by ridiculous regulations and inter departmental rivalries. The proposed Harbourfront Authority is taking forever to set up and there are rumours that the sweeping powers it was going to get to develop the harbour front are being eroded.

A private sector initiative last year to pedestrianise part of Des Voeux Road attracted considerable interest but has come to nothing. Everybody realised while Central was occupied last year that it was infinitely more pleasant when it wasn't inundated by vehicles. Yet nothing is being done to make the urban centres more pleasant for everyone. The Transport Department's answer to traffic congestion is simply to build more roads, which in time will also fill up. Then what?

Obviously there needs to be anti-congestion measures or electronic road pricing, more park and ride schemes and so on. But the government continues to plod on in the same way it has for years. Indeed it seems stuck in the 1980s while other authorities have moved on.

Hong Kong's political arrangements are such that it doesn't throw up authoritarian figures that that can get things done and the leaders we do get have no popular mandate since they are foisted on us through fake elections. The new electoral proposals won't change anything despite the government's claims to the contrary. More people will get to vote, but all they will be able to vote for are pre-selected pro-Beijing candidates. The prospects for revitalising the government therefore remain dim.