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 overseas experience.

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 as chairman.

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 a cover-up.

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 leader.




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