Bureaucrats still tainted by the smell of collusion

SCMP August 6 2007

Personally, I do not feel that strongly about the fate of Queen's Pier - the Star Ferry pier was historically more significant. But I do feel strongly about the mix of arrogance, ignorance and corruption (yes, corruption) displayed by the senior bureaucracy over so-called development projects. Queen's Pier is the most conspicuous at present, but similar incidents are all too frequent.

Last Friday, the Planning Department chose to brush aside a public consultation - which saw 1,006 local opponents and only eight in favour - and press ahead with changes to the Hung Hom town plan, apparently to help Cheung Kong and DHL use a pier for commercial purposes.

Looking for some roots of these planning issues, and how supposed rules have often been bypassed, it is worth recalling that this is the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution disturbances.

Then, the likes of Tsang Yok-sing were praising the works of Mao Zedong while Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his police family were standing shoulder to shoulder with the colonial government.

The loyalty, in 1967, of the locally recruited police and civil service was rewarded with better pay, perks and promotions and, as far as the police was concerned until the 1974 establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, an indulgent attitude to syndicated corruption.

Senior bureaucrats learned from the colonial system to believe in their own brilliance, in leadership by a cadre of intelligent persons able to determine what was best for the rest, free from the vulgar influences of party politics.

Very high salaries and very generous pensions and perks were the reward for their supposed excellence and freedom from corruption.

Fast forward to today. Queen's Pier is about the determination of the bureaucrats to drive a highway through the middle of the city, filling in more of the harbour and cutting it off from urban life.

This is partly arrogance: the 'we-know-best' mentality. Once the bureaucrat-for-life planners have decided something, they will press ahead - regardless either of public opinion or reasoned policy.

It is partly ignorance: living in their comfortable cocoons, the planners know little about advanced cities from Singapore to Sydney and Seoul, not to mention London, Paris or Boston. There, inner city roads are being knocked down or buried, private vehicles taxed, money spent on public and less polluting transport.

It is partly corruption, not of the crude cash-in-an-envelope kind but of giving favours to construction and development companies in the expectation of eventual rewards in the form of lucrative post-retirement sinecures, and the like. Even those who have no desire to end up working for a developer may feel promotion prospects could be in jeopardy if they oppose the interests of businesses close to the chief executive and his supporters in the Legislative Council.

The public well understands that there is indeed collusion between big business and a top bureaucracy which is often more concerned with its own interests than the public's. Nor is the ICAC much of a guard against sophisticated forms of high-level corruption. It is now simply another part of the bureaucracy, not a genuinely independent entity.

The collusion does not just revolve around development projects, the building of roads and bridges that are not needed, and arbitrary changes in planning rules. Take the Mandatory Provident Fund. From the start, it was obvious that this was a golden gift to a few suppliers. Fees were ridiculous and employee choice of provider non-existent.

Only after years of criticism is pressure finally building to cut costs to levels seen in other societies so that the public, rather than a finance sector clique favoured by the bureaucracy, gets the main benefit of its forced savings. But the smell of collusion remains.




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