Pay alone is not enough to attract the best political talent
Ministers in Hong Kong are already among the highest paid in the world, yet attracting quality candidates from the private sector to serve the public remains a challenge
A day after Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor unveiled her administration filled with familiar faces, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa came to her defence. He admitted that it was difficult to recruit talent from outside the bureaucracy, but put the blame on low salary packages, political division and lack of training. It is true that quality ministers are difficult to come by, despite ongoing efforts to groom more political talent. The prevailing social and political atmosphere may also deter some from taking up the challenge.
Tung is in a position to comment on the obstacles in recruitment, having instituted the change from a civil-servant-based governance structure to a politically accountable system 17 years ago. There were five “outsiders” in his ministerial team back then, compared with just one in Lam’s. Tung lamented that the pay packages were lower than those in Singapore. He reckoned that some in the private sector might not want to take a pay cut to join the government. Be that as it may, the truth is that the salaries of ministers in Hong Kong and Singapore far outstrip those in the United States and Europe, making them the best paid in the world.
Maintaining competitive salaries is essential to the recruitment of talent, be it in the public or private sector. Political offices are no exception. But what makes the ministerial posts special is that the appointees are not in it for the money. They are expected to serve with a sense of mission and commitment. There are examples of businessmen giving up their high-paid jobs to work in government.
To make up for their sacrifice, the monthly salaries for the new ministerial team have risen by 12.4 per cent, from HK$298,000 to HK$335,100 starting from this month. They will also be adjusted annually according to inflation. The changes, initiated by the outgoing administration of Leung Chun-ying and endorsed by the Legislative Council after much wrangling, are positive steps towards enhancing the rewards offered to those who come forward to serve the public.
The prevailing political environment is perhaps a more important factor for aspirants to consider. Filibustering by a few pro-democracy lawmakers has made it difficult for the administration to deliver effective governance over the past few years. Adding to the challenge is an increasingly demanding public, who are easily frustrated when government policies fail to yield instant results.
The expansion of the team is supposed to strengthen governance while grooming political talent for future administrations. Concerted efforts are needed to ensure that political office can attract quality people committed to serving the people.