Web of influence
SCMP April 10 2009
The role of an increasingly politicised civil service is becoming
an ever greater obstacle to Hong Kong's development. It is loath to
take bold decisions, for example on the environment, and instead ends
up spending its energy on damage control when minor crises hit - as
they have done over health and food issues. At the same time it is
infinitely protective of its own people and interests.
Bureaucracies everywhere are prone to these faults but the blurred
lines between the responsibilities of senior civil servants and their
appointed political masters are making matters worse. The recent career
of former ICAC commissioner Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun illustrates several
aspects of the problem.
First, the Independent Commission Against Corruption can, in no sense,
be described as independent. It is just another part of the civil service
machinery. She got the post in a job swap with Raymond Wong Hung-chiu,
who went to her education portfolio. When she was forced to resign
after the fracas over her education role vis-a-vis the Hong Kong Institute
of Education, she was succeeded by another lifelong civil servant Timothy
Tong Hin-ming, former commissioner of customs and excise - a responsible
but scarcely top level job.
Surely the ICAC, which should be focusing much attention on the interface
between government and private sector, especially in major land and
construction issues, should be headed by someone independent of the
civil service hierarchy. Someone at the end of a distinguished career
outside government and with a reputation for integrity and independence.
Is that simply too dangerous for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen
and his colleagues to contemplate?
But Mrs Law's recent treatment exemplifies the lack of both backbone
and common sense so often shown by the bureaucracy. Having belatedly
been driven to tighten up rules governing employment by retiring civil
servants, it went overboard with restrictions on Mrs Law working for
the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. Surely, if senior civil servants are
to be allowed to retire early on generous pensions, they should be
encouraged or even expected to work for charitable and educational
institutions at modest salaries.
Meanwhile, one must ask what the ICAC has been doing all these years
turning a blind eye to the potential for abuse of lax rules. This column
alone has often wondered about the numerous instances of 'technical
errors' by civil servants that have provided vast profits to developers
and whether these were somehow linked to post-retirement jobs in private
sector companies whose profits depend heavily on deals with the government.
The public's suspicion of collusion between civil servants and developers
is extremely well founded. New cases - for example, relating to profiteering
from supposedly public space - are frequent.
It took the public storm created by former housing chief Leung Chin-man's
move to the New World Group in the wake of his role in the sale of
the Hung Hom Home Ownership Scheme development to force the civil servants
to backtrack. The government's own job-vetting process in his case
has been shown up as a sham and, by implication, the ICAC's corruption
prevention department as equally tolerant of the existence of the potential
for abuse that has long been evident to outsiders.
Nor has the government in general learned any lessons. Take the case
of the ombudsman, a job that is about rectifying government mistakes
and abuse of power. Ideally, again, this is a post that should be -
and sometimes has been - occupied by an independent person from outside
the civil service. But the latest appointee is Alan Lai Nin, an administrative
officer who recently retired as permanent treasury secretary and is
a former ICAC commissioner.
The government is so unwilling to listen that it cannot even take
criticism from the retiring ombudsman, who also came from within. Alice
Tai Yuen-ying's reference to the governance problems created by the
interface between the administrative service and the ministerial system
produced an instant denial by officials who view all criticism as hostile.
No wonder Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen needed to be put in charge
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