Carrie Lam

Would mandarins or private sector high-fliers make better ministers in Hong Kong?

Popular former minister Ko Wing-man, now a delegate to China’s top political advisory body, says civil servants shouldn’t be seen as second choice leaders, as a star-studded cabinet made up of outsiders could result in ‘trouble’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 10:37pm

If the recent political storm that engulfed justice chief Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah ends up scaring off private sector leaders from joining the government, will Hong Kong suffer if its ministers are instead made up entirely of career civil servants?

Not necessarily, according to Dr Ko Wing-man, one of the previous administration’s most popular ministers and who last month was among the 200 or so Hongkongers appointed as delegates to China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

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In an interview with the Post, the 60-year-old Ko said senior civil servants with experience in public administration could potentially be great government ministers, if they possessed political skills and were able to engage with and lobby the public.

“Our civil servants are not second choice. A suitable candidate in the civil service can be first choice … they should be considered on an equal basis [with external candidates],” Ko, who was the city’s secretary for food and health from 2012 to last June, said.

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An orthopaedist, Ko was one of seven ministers that former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, a surveyor-turned-politician, recruited from outside the government in 2012.

In contrast, current leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a veteran civil servant and Leung’s deputy, drew mostly from the civil service when she formed her cabinet. Lam only recruited two officials from outside: Law Chi-kwong, a social work academic who became labour and welfare minister and Cheng, a senior counsel and internationally-recognised arbitrator.

Former leader Tung Chee-hwa, in picking his cabinet in 2002, had at least five outsiders – including Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, then vice-chancellor of Chinese University, and Frederick Ma Si-hang, former chief financial officer of telecoms group PCCW.

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Cheng was embroiled in scandal from the day she took office last month. Ten illegal extensions in adjoining luxury homes in Tuen Mun belonging to her and her engineer husband were discovered. Authorities later identified 10 more illegal structures at her flat in Repulse Bay and two units in Sha Tin.

She subsequently survived calls for her to be sacked, including two no-confidence motions in the Legislative Council.

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If the kitchen is hot, neither civil servants nor people from the outside would dare to take up the job
Dr Ko Wing-man, on getting the right talent for the chief executive’s cabinet

Pundits said that after the heated condemnation of Cheng, high-fliers from the professional and business sector would think twice about joining the government, for fear of being scrutinised by legislators and the media.

But when this concern was posed to Ko, he said it stemmed from a negative assumption that civil servants would be worse ministerial candidates than bigwigs from the private sector.

“We must not look at it as if [a chief executive] was promoting civil servants because he or she could not find a strong candidate from the outside.”

In fact, he said, he did not believe the city’s leader “should exhaust every means” to form a star-studded cabinet.

“[As] you can see, trouble could easily emerge in those situations,” he said.

He said as long as a candidate was capable and committed to joining the government, the city’s political climate – which had improved under Lam, he said – did not matter much.

“If the kitchen is hot, neither civil servants nor people from the outside would dare to take up the job,” he said.

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“As civil servants, at least they can maintain their political neutrality … and it could be even harder to attract them [compared to other candidates].”

Ko was consistently ranked among the most popular ministers by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion poll during his term, while Leung – and some of his other external appointees – such as education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim were consistently ranked as the least popular.

In the current administration, officials with the largest amount of public support include Law – the most popular cabinet minister – civil service chief Joshua Law Chi-kong and commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah, a former civil servant.

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Ko, who returned to his clinical practice after stepping down from the government, said he was looking forward to his CPPCC appointment and would advise Beijing authorities on issues relating to China’s medical reforms.

He added that he would work with other Hong Kong medical experts on the CPPCC, such as former World Health Organisation head Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun; Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority; and Dr Donald Li Kwok-tung, president of the World Organisation of Family Doctors and a former president of the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine.