Is Hong Kong’s leadership dearth a reflection of the city’s decline?
Alice Wu says incoming chief executive Carrie Lam’s difficulty in filling her cabinet raises the question of why so few are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to serve. Perhaps the problem is a lack of a sense of belonging
For weeks, we’ve been hearing about incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s uphill challenge to fill her cabinet. Naturally, we turn our attention to the leadership gene pool in the city.
Lam has pledged to try to inject fresh blood into government, but she is finding out that the kitchen is too hot for some of the preferred candidates. This begs the question: does Hong Kong suffer from a shallow political talent pool or are people refusing to be thrown into that pool to begin with?
Twenty years after the handover, we still lack men and women of talent who are willing to take up key official roles.
When Lam was running for the job, she showcased a star-studded campaign team full of heavyweight supporters. Where are they now when she needs them?
“Many friends from the business sector wanted to join my team because they feared I would be doing too much on social welfare,” she said at a rally in February to kick off her campaign, referring to an impression then that she was pro-welfare and therefore anti-business. Maybe she should let that welfare streak come through more now – perhaps that would “scare” her “many friends” into being real friends.
Without more people coming forward, Lam will be “stuck” with Paul Chan Mo-po as financial secretary, widely believed not to be her preferred choice. In fact, nothing contradicts the notion that Lam carries weight with the movers and shakers of this city more than having to appoint Chan – a deeply unpopular minister who has been hip-deep in controversies and happens to have been hand-picked by the equally unpopular outgoing chief executive – because there was no one else.
It is believed that a big part of the problem is that candidates are turned off by the current political climate, which puts top officials under intense scrutiny and pressure. But since when has political office not come with intense public scrutiny? It’s called accountability. Business leaders should understand this better than most – company shareholders make sure they do.
It is true that the testy relationship between the executive and the legislative branches of government would make life at Tamar tough, but at some point we must stop blaming our legislators for being feisty. They are doing their job, which includes scrutinising government works and officials.
For two decades, we have been talking about the need to groom more political talent. Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who began his tenure in July 1997 with a cast of nearly all civil servants, introduced a ministerial system, in which all principal officials would be political appointees chosen by the chief executive, to try to improve governance.
His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, expanded the system with middle-ranking posts to try to develop a career path for aspiring politicians.
Have we gone back to square one now? Lam’s cabinet is said to be made up heavily of civil servants. Perhaps it’s not a talent issue. Maybe – just maybe – Hong Kong does not inspire the sense of belonging that makes enough people want to make personal sacrifices for public service.
A survey conducted last year found that four in 10 Hongkongers wanted to leave the city. Behind this brain-drain threat lies the much bigger problem of what I shall call “heart drain”.
The Lam administration needs to look into the reasons why people want to go, and then, maybe, it can tackle the issue of why so few are willing to try to make Hong Kong a better home for all.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA