A rough grip on power

SCMP October

The more closely one reads Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's policy address, the more troubling it becomes. The closer one looks, the fewer concrete proposals are to be found on key areas such as the port, the airport and Kai Tak redevelopment. And beneath all the rhetoric about consultation, there is a philosophy of government with which authoritarian regimes everywhere would be in accord.

Mr Tsang's now publicly expressed desire is to create a political Praetorian guard that will further enhance the power of the chief executive. This is a dangerous idea modelled in some respects on the communist cadre system, and in others on Singapore's People Action Party (PAP) as fashioned under former leader Lee Kuan Yew. Legislative Council members and others of every political stripe should see it for what it is and oppose it vigorously.

Mark Mr Tsang's words: 'We will consider creating within our executive agencies a small number of positions dedicated to political affairs. Their main duty will be to support the chief executive and principal officials in their political work. This will provide a new channel for people with political aspirations to join the government. It will also allow civil servants aspiring to a political career to leave the civil service to take part in politics.'

Mr Tsang used the communist word 'cadre' to describe his new class of leaders. While he promised that they would not compromise the civil service's independence, it is hard to imagine that could be so. Cadres would have the same role as political commissars in the communist system. The party trustee almost always has the power to overrule the decisions of non-party bureaucrats and the party hierarchy, taking precedence over the state hierarchy.

Singapore's PAP is a small but tightly organised party. It is an elite body that dominates the top echelons of the government and state-enterprise structure. The civil service is nominally independent of this political structure but, in practice, does the bidding of the party elite.

Under the Tsang scheme of things, those who want to be part of the political structure need to start by joining it, and supporting the leadership. Those who might want to use politics to change the system or policies are not welcome. Instead, we are supposed to accept that the accountability system represents political progress - when in fact it is all about accountability to the chief executive, not to Legco or the public.

As for progress towards universal suffrage, Mr Tsang may take refuge in Beijing's fear of plural politics. But democrats and others would do well to focus on the structure of government as conceived by Mr Tsang, which may prove rather more damaging to liberalism.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities will be wondering what he really believes about their role. He promised legislation to prohibit racial discrimination. But his reference to 'blood' as a defining factor for Hongkongers smacked of the race-based appeal of many a would-be populist authoritarian.

Similarly, his calls for 'harmony' were couched in terms which suggest that it was something devised by a political elite and implemented by civil servants, rather than growing out of mutual interest and respect in a free society.

The lifetime bureaucrat who trashed Hong Kong's tradition of competition with Cyberport, Disney, West Kowloon, and the like, is on the loose again. Don't believe me? Read that speech.



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