Carrie Lam’s talk of ‘hot kitchens’ in defence of Teresa Cheng insults us all as the justice chief faces a political grilling

  • Alice Wu says Carrie Lam’s pending hike in the welfare age limit caught lawmakers off guard, and they may take out their frustrations on the justice secretary she has sheltered
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 7:36pm

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor may have been “shocked” by lawmakers’ criticism from across the political spectrum over the move to increase the age limit for elderly welfare payments from 60 to 65, since the plan was approved last May as part of the Appropriation Bill. But the pro-establishment lawmakers may have been more shocked; they were the chief executive’s allies, with 39 out of the 43 votes in support of the bill coming from their camp, and she basically sold them out.

But most shocking about the chief executive’s question-and-answer session last week at the Legislative Council may be Lam’s resurrected “hot kitchen” talk. This familiar phrase came in her response to James To Kun-sun’s question about the reputation of her administration being affected by her secretary for justice, who refused to seek external legal opinion before dropping the investigation into former chief executive Leung Chun-ying over a HK$50 million (US$6.38 million) payment.

In defence of – again – Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, the chief executive said Cheng had not been in the “hot kitchen” long enough to know better.

First, this “hot kitchen” talk is so 2017. Lam needs to realise that she used the same excuse at almost exactly the same time last year over the 10 unauthorised extensions found by Buildings Department inspectors at two adjacent three-storey houses owned by Cheng and her husband. And, more unauthorised works were later uncovered (the information was not volunteered) at other properties belonging to Cheng.

Whether Lam’s kitchen is hot was as irrelevant then as it is now. It wasn’t convincing then, and it isn’t now. In fact, it’s insulting to suggest that some people are above public expectations and the principles of public life. According to British government guidelines, the seven principles of public life are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – irrespective of how hot one’s kitchen is perceived to be.

If someone is not ready to live up to the standards and qualities expected of people in senior positions in public service, then they should not be there in the first place. This is true when it comes to illegal structures and when failing to protect the office one serves from being beyond reproach.

Lam said she had to respect Cheng’s decision, mentioning that she is a senior counsel. Meanwhile, Lam recognised – but seems at a complete loss as to how to address – the problem of public perception. Respect is in fact earned, and when it comes to Cheng, it’s undeserved.

Justice suffers as distrust of Teresa Cheng deepens

It’s undeserved because Cheng has articulated her unwillingness to be open to the public and explain her decision. And shameless displays of annoyance at the scrutiny officials are subject to undermines the credibility of the government, and her department.

Cheng has been a political liability and a political freeloader, leaving others to speak for her. Lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun has to do the dirty work of limiting what her colleagues can ask at the January 28 Legco meeting that Cheng will attend to explain prosecution policy.

A motion targeting Cheng’s work will be tabled on January 23, which will be the prelude to the grilling at the meeting of the administration of justice and legal services panel. And, for having treated the public as fools, Cheng will be made to face the music. Politics is not beneath her. She is, after all, a political appointee.

Justice chief isn’t just wrong about CY Leung case, she’s arrogant and clueless

As for the pro-establishment politicians – they should consider how the chief executive put them on the skewer before letting Cheng off the hook. Serving as accessories to Cheng’s failures may well prove costly, especially as election season kicks off later this year.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA