Right man for the job?

SCMP July 11, 2005

It is surprising that the elevation of Rafael Hui Si-yan to be chief secretary has attracted relatively little comment in the media and in political circles. As Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Anson Chan Fang On-sang showed, in their very different ways when they held the post, it has great significance - going well beyond the role of senior bureaucrat.
It may be even more so under Mr Tsang as chief executive, as he appears to want to revert to the colonial tradition of a government, leaving most day-to-day work to the chief secretary as "prime minister". Under former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, the post was effectively downgraded - with little direct power over anything other than the civil service.

Mr Hui has been widely hailed as a veteran civil servant and accomplished troubleshooter. He is also said to be a close friend of Mr Tsang, having run his so-called "election campaign". The two worked well together when Mr Tsang was financial secretary and Mr Hui his subordinate as secretary for financial services, during a time that included the 1998 financial crisis.

But none of that quite explains why someone who left the civil service five years ago is now deemed to be the best person to run it today, elevated above accomplished political players such as Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung.

I do not doubt that Mr Hui is a competent bureaucrat, but two aspects of his elevation to the No2 power position are disturbing.

First, unlike his predecessors, he has never held a top decision-making, bureau-level government post. Mr Tsang was financial secretary for several years before moving up. Mr Hui was always one step below, as the implementer. He never had to face the political issues during the financial crisis, let alone handle Sars.

Why did he leave the civil service in 2000? The question deserves an answer because it says a lot about his own perceptions of government, and others' perceptions of him. It is especially pertinent given that Mr Tsang and Beijing now emphasise the importance of the civil service in achieving good government. Why go to someone who left it five years ago?

Was he passed over because he was not thought up to a more senior position? Was he offered, and declined, the financial secretary job? The answers do matter when considering his fitness to be No2.

Also worth pondering is whether he is there now because of Mr Tsang's faith in his abilities and loyalty. Or is it because he is favoured by Beijing - either on account of past, undisclosed, services or because of family connections that Beijing finds comfortable. The other disturbing issue is Mr Hui's apparent nonchalance as he moved from civil service to quango to the business oligarchy - with Sun Hung Kai Properties and Kowloon Motor Bus - and now back into government.

As secretary for financial services he was involved in creating the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF), and went on to become its first boss. He got a huge salary increase - without losing his very generous civil service pension rights. The MPF is an expensive bureaucracy that eats up the forced savings of citizens. It is a classic bureaucratic boondoggle for ex-civil servants.

From there he went to the private sector - not to an entrepreneurial start-up or one selling Hong Kong goods or services to the world - but to local giants always in need of influencing the ear of government.

He was doing just the kind of work from which all senior ex-civil servants should be barred. In short, Mr Hui has a lot to do to prove he is a fit and proper person to be the No2 in Hong Kong's government.





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