The 'Yes Minister' syndrome
SCMP April 17
Beijing must be feeling disappointed. It swallowed some pride in choosing
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as chief executive, in the expectation that the
accomplished bureaucrat would improve standards of governance following
the benign but unskilled Tung Chee-hwa. Alas, accomplished bureaucrats
in Hong Kong are far too close to those of the British television series
Yes Minister - more involved with protecting their turf than devising
the best policies.
Look at the quasi-merger proposal for MTR Corp and the KCRC. I take
no stance on whether a merger is desirable. What is clear is that the
convoluted way of going about it - with a leasing arrangement lasting
longer than the statutory life of the Hong Kong special administrative
region - has been driven not by commercial logic but as a compromise
between competing bureaucratic and political interests.
This botched job has then been given a spurious 'okay' by investment
bankers who will do almost anything for a fat fee.
The messy arrangement is itself the outcome of the Kowloon-Canton
Railway Corporation's management row, which featured a non-executive
chairman of the board acting as though he were the chief executive.
Do not expect lifelong bureaucrats, used to their own hierarchies,
to understand that the top executive reports to the board as a whole.
The Tamar issue is another extraordinary example of the Yes Minister
syndrome. Mr Tsang is making this palace for bureaucrats the centrepiece
of his claims to run an 'executive-led' government, rather than taking
forceful action where Hong Kong's international standing and economic
well-being are at stake - pollution, ports and cross-border barriers.
It remains to be seen what happens with the scheme of control contracts
being debated with Hong Kong's electricity providers. But judging by
recent events, decisions will be made on the basis of bureaucratic
and political compromises. They will not represent the best balance
of pollution control, power cost and security-of-supply objectives
achieved through rational analysis, wide consultation and study of
Resistance to change is clear, too, in the case of the quasi-government
monopoly Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, a body with a history of
putting the interests of listed companies and brokers ahead of those
of the public - the investors. Jockey Club chairman and former legislator
Ronald Arculli is the frontrunner to succeed Charles Lee Yeh-kwong
In other words, one lawyer who has long represented the property tycoons
is about to take over from another. For collusion and small-circle
government, Hong Kong is hard to match.
The punishment of whistle-blowers is also alive in the bureaucratic
culture, as the ombudsman noted in a recent report. Self-protection
seems the name of the game in the police force, too, which is keen
to avert an independent inquiry into the recent shooting deaths of
officers and their possible connection to gambling rings and a previous
murder. Explanations to date do not inspire confidence.
Mr Tsang's brother was head of the police at the time of the earlier
murder, so it is especially important that there is no suspicion of
Eyebrows should also be raised at the recent savage sentencing of
three young Australians for carrying drugs. One was 15 at the time
of the offence. Catching drug mules at the airport contrasts with the
singular lack of success of the police in suppressing street drug dealing
in Hong Kong - one of the easiest places in the world to obtain heroin.
One wonders why.
The public service in Hong Kong may be clean and efficient, relative
to the region. But it is not as good as it thinks it is. Ditto its
TOP OF THE PAGE