C.Y's chance to clean up inherited problems
SCMP November 18 2012
The new administration is clearly stumbling despite some evidence of good intentions on the part of Leung Chun-ying and the hard work by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. But it is important at this time to separate poor decisions by them from problems inherited from the previous regime.
Firm action to address those legacy issues would do much to raise public confidence. It would also give both Leung and Lam an opportunity to show they can drive ministers and civil servants to act expeditiously.
One place to start would be to make a decision on applications for new free-to-air TV licences. It is simply maladministration to sit on this for years because of pressure from vested interests - such as ATV with political backing from self-appointed "patriots". It shows government to be weak and unwilling to operate under its own procedures.
Another step, in a minor key, would be to order the chief of police to stop waiving traffic and parking laws in Central, Wan Chai and other congested areas for owners and drivers of posh vehicles. Special favours for the rich and powerful that inconvenience the 99 per cent bring the whole system of justice into disrepute. It has got to the point where owners and drivers of fancy cars even threaten citizens who complain. Such public arrogance is a danger to social cohesion. If Leung cannot fix such a simple issue, he should quit now.
One way the administration could show it wants to raise trust would be to stop the Lands Department being a willing accessory to large-scale money laundering as well as operating an information wall that, unsurprisingly, gives the public the impression of collusion between the government and politically influential business interests. As corporate governance expert David Webb recently pointed out, while banks and ordinary businesses are hassled by form-filling supposedly to stop money laundering, overseas companies can buy land at government auctions without having to reveal the identity of those behind them, or even their place of incorporation: a corporate name from anywhere will suffice.
Perhaps Lam herself, as a former secretary for development, could explain why this scandalous state of affairs has been allowed to continue. Secrecy also seems the watchword of the Buildings Department, a stance that can only benefit those with an inside track.
It would be encouraging, too, to see the chief executive and chief secretary show that the government, not the Heung Yee Kuk's godfathers, run development policy in the New Territories. Lam seemed prepared for a degree of confrontation with them in her old job. Now she has even more power. But will she use it to promote better, fairer administration, or succumb to behind-the-scenes political pressures of the sort that have delayed the decision on TV licences?
Confusion seems to reign about the property sector. The imposition of discriminatory extra taxes on non-permanent residents may be popular but it's a dangerous precedent. Meanwhile, the curious episode of Franklin Lam Fan-keung suggests Leung has a limited grasp of public concerns about government-property sector links.
Most remarkable is that Lam was appointed to the Executive Council at all. He has made a successful career speculating in leveraged property, and advising others to do the same. Clearly, he has a vested interest in high prices, and no other obvious expertise that would be useful on Exco.
Discrimination against non-locals also seems apparent in noises now coming out of the Education Department, aimed at cutting the subsidy to the English Schools Foundation. It is surely a matter of principle that these schools, indeed all recognised schools, be given support equal to the cost per student in government schools. Koreans, Singaporeans, Germans, Canadians and the like contribute to this society. Why should they not get the same treatment as the classy, mostly church-related, subvented local schools for all children of actual Hong Kong residents?
The ESF has an added responsibility. English is an official language and many minorities prefer an English-language education but a with a strong Chinese input. For sure, the ESF has been mismanaged. But that is no reason to disadvantage it. It should get an equal subsidy - and use its accumulated surplus to subsidise access for the children of disadvantaged minorities.
Government schools policy seems in total confusion. While discriminating against the ESF, it has handed out billions of dollars in incentives for very expensive new international schools with prestigious-sounding names. They aim to attract students from the mainland and overseas - which is fine as long as they do not expect a taxpayer subsidy for the offspring of non-residents.
It is hard to fathom the administration's thinking on education, but elements of nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment are creeping in. This is the last thing Hong Kong needs for its global image. It is also sure to add to the surging anti-mainland sentiment. Educational issues are close behind pollution as concerns about attracting skilled overseas staff to Hong Kong. Leung wants to move on pollution and has appointed a strong team. But the man in charge of education is out of his depth.