The leader Hong Kong needs

Philip Yeung says our governance must be overhauled, no matter who is elected. The city requires a chief executive who will listen, apologise for mistakes, reach out to those with opposing views, and, vitally, improve the economy and people’s livelihoods

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 11:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 6:21pm

One thing is for sure after the chief executive election: Hong Kong will be even more divided. This city has lost the art of compromise.

The pan-democrats, with their knee-jerk reaction that “anyone Beijing favours, we oppose”, have demonised Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor while John Tsang Chun-wah, as her foil, has all the virtues.

Now is the time to forget the labels and ask what kind of leader Hong Kong needs. The deep divisions cannot be wished away by smiles and good public relations vibes. We need someone with the healing touch.

The chief executive election Hong Kong could have had

But we don’t need a leader who hankers for the trappings of power or the opportunity to hobnob with the well-heeled. The chief executive is there to serve the people, not subserve the super-rich.

Even more pressing than specific policy ideas, Hong Kong’s next leader must set a new style of governance; clearly, the old confrontational style doesn’t work. That means setting a new tone and restoring respect in dealing with people of different political stripes. In a divided city, you cannot lead without respectful listening.

But people have been promised that before. This time, genuine listening must mean more than lip service. First, in public consultations, the government must avoid having a hidden, preset agenda. Contrarian views are often early signs of trouble to come, and should be welcomed. Consultants are not the government’s mouthpieces, paid to lend legitimacy to its actions.

Secondly, all government programmes must be subject to periodic reviews by stakeholders, with no sacred cows, and no thin-skinned officials. Governance is a two-way street, not a one-way lava flow.

This brings up the next point: disown the idea of “infallibility”. Officials are not gods, despite being self-proclaimed elites. We all make mistakes. Officials often make mistakes. Considering that most administrative officers and even principal officials are “generalists” who lack either specific disciplinary knowledge or frontline experience, it behoves them to be humble. There is no shame in making mistakes. But defending the indefensible poisons the relationship with the public. When officials become tone-deaf, the dispute spills over into the streets, and spirals out of control.

Governance is a two-way street, not a one-way lava flow

The next leader should consider discontinuing the practice of rotating administrative officers through different portfolios every few years. This is hardly conducive to cultivating key community relationships that could turn into goodwill to make governance effective. Unlike mainland ministers such as Wang Shucheng, the former minister of water resources who spent 30 years in his portfolio, and knew everything inside out, from grass-roots complaints to the latest hi-tech development, ours is a government of floating generalists who can only mouth platitudes in conferences with their mainland counterparts. The call to professionalise the Education Bureau, for example, should be heeded.

The new administration should be inclusive. There is no quicker way to disarm your opponents than by forming a “cabinet of rivals”. By co-opting the opposition, they can be turned into servants of the people, instead of being bitter critics of the government. Given responsibility, even diehard opponents will behave responsibly.

Appointments should be made strictly on merit, regardless of political affiliations. No more wishy-washy types like Eddie Ng Hak-kim, Lau Kong-wah or Greg So Kam-leung to irk the public. If you want quality governance, hire quality people. Cronyism is the cancer of good governance.

How should Hong Kong ‘drain the swamp’?

The small, tight circle that runs Hong Kong

Hong Kong is adrift. Few senior officials know anything about science and technology. What they don’t know, they don’t care. That is why this city is a technological laggard in the region. We have done little to diversify our economy. Shenzhen outspends Hong Kong by more than sixfold on the funding of research and development, pumping in 4.5 per cent of their GDP versus a miserly 0.73 per cent for us. No wonder a state leader recently predicted it could overtake Hong Kong within two years. Dangerously overdependent on the property and equity markets, we risk becoming irrelevant.

We are due for a leader with vision and conviction who feels called to serve. If that person doesn’t appear soon, 2047 may not look so bad

Interestingly, this election features only former public servants, including a retired judge. This spells its own problems, because for too long, government policies have been designed and delivered from the civil servants’ tunnel vision. With their fat pensions, generous housing and education allowances, civil servants live in an alternative universe and develop their own blind spots.

A new leader must try to see ordinary people’s needs from a non-civil-servant angle, or progress on livelihood issues including a universal pension, housing and education will never see the light of day. Tellingly, civil servants’ needs in these areas have been comfortably catered to.

“A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows the corners,” goes an old proverb. All of the candidates are old brooms. But any of them can sweep cleaner if they are thoughtfully reconditioned. We have been through three flawed leaders in the past two decades. We are due for a leader with vision and conviction who feels called to serve. If that person doesn’t appear soon, 2047 may not look so bad.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. [email protected]