18 December, 2008

Retreat, retreat and retreat...

The confusion characteristic of the Tsang administration is contagious and quickly spreading to infect Hongkong's corporate governance. First, there was the appointment and dismissal fiasco of the television broadcaster. Then came the 180-degree turnaround by the bus companies to reinstate the fare discounts to elderly citizens, which was withdrawn only a week ago.

Isn't this all too familiar? Does it remind you of government's change of mind over old-age financial assistance and chartering flights to Thailand? In each case, decisions seem haphazard and whimsical, made on poor foresight and then overturned at the earliest sight of opposition.

Is it because our corporate elites share the very same DNA with government bureaucrats? Let me make a bold hypothesis. Many of our business elites, like their counterparts in government, are still living in the good old days of 1970s (as I wrote in the previous essay). They are still too used to operating in the socially unsophisticated environment that's very benign to elite and business interests. They have not recognized the need to address the big changes to Hongkong in the last two decades.

The government and its allies like to put the blame on the advent of populism. Yet their out-dated elitism, with its characteristic arrogance of power, has been fuelling this populism. The problem is that they have neither the stomach for democracy nor the guts for autocracy. As a commander if you believe what you're doing is right, you simply stick to it. You don't change course in the middle. That's the worst to any leadership. Your successive retreats at the face of opposition will only bolden your enemies.

11 December, 2008

Suicidal magnanimity

On this day in 1792, King Louis XVI was tried for treason. Like many last emperor, he's unfortunate to have inherited an "ancien regime" that simply could not adapt to new situations. You might say it wasn't entirely his fault. True, many last emperors were punished for being kind and indecisive rather than cruel but ruthless.

Hongkong inherited a rich legacy from the British (or in Patten's words, the Cleopatra's dowry). But it also inherited an establishment that's not fully brought up to date to deal with the immense changes in the run-up to the change of sovereignty. Indeed, the tremendous socio-economic changes since 1980s alone are sufficient to render our administrative machinery obsolete. By any yardstick, Hongkong is the least politically developed amongst all modern metropolis of comparable economic achievement (worse than Singapore that has at least a quasi-elected legislature).

Yet many "royalists" in this City, like their predecessors in France, were trying hard to "turn the clock back", not to the 1990s, nor the 1980s, but to the good old days of 1970s when the damned curse of democracy was still a far cry. Thus you have the government re-introducing appointed district councillors to your local district boards. This is the biggest fallacy of all. To say that we cannot have universal suffrage for the chief executive or legislature overnight might be understandable. But to reduce the level of representation at the district level is plainly unforgivable (*there's no Basic Law restriction on universal suffrage for district board membership).

Belive me, there are many "royalists" in this City who still believe the old modus operandi of "administrative absorption of politics" will stall the call for democratization. Some brilliant minds in this government - let me assure you - still harbor the hope/illusion that appointing more "elites" to the hundreds of advisory boards and committees will save its dwindling reputation.

Isn't this laughable? The prime case of such hope/illusion is Donald Tsang's decision to appoint a DAB legislator to his cabinet (the executive council). Some have compared this to the examples of Abraham Lincoln and Barrack Obama as a manifestation of magnanimity. Excuse me, but I don't think Tsang can be comparable to these two men. And the most crucial point is that Lincoln and Obama had won their power through an open nation-wide contest. Their electoral victory earned them the legitimacy to silence their opposition. Any rivals they brought to the cabinets would be foolish to challenge or torpedo a popularly elected president.

But this isn't the situation with Hongkong's chief executive as you know well. Displaying magnanimity while you're weak is politically suicidal. And Tsang is already paying this price. (Could you imagine a cabinet member of Obama calling the US government as "shameful", as our DAB executive councillor did?) If Tsang really wants to build strong governance (too late anyway), he ought to learn from Louis XVI rather than Obama or Lincoln.

Let me close by quoting Winston Churchill's opening words in his memoir,

"In War, Resolution;
In Defeat, Defiance;
In Victory, Magnanimity;
In Peace, Goodwill"

Which phase do you think this government is in?

10 December, 2008

You'd better drive your own car than taking a bus

The cash-rich local bus companies just announced they would not extend the holiday discounts to the elderly because of rising operating costs. They would also cancel the same-day return discount to other passengers.

I would very much like to see how this government make a response that will demonstrate its avowed care for senior citizens, and how it shows its "strong governance".

But you bet most likely you won't see any response.

Hongkong's public transport is more expensive than most think. It's quickly becoming a folly that riding on a private car will be cheaper than riding on public transport on some routes, especially if you need to change buses. These days I find myself driving more and more as petrol prices are falling, whereas my bus and subway fares are fixed (with government approval of course).

Driving is a dispensable luxury for the middle-upper classes in Hongkong (truck drivers excepted). They could take the hit of oil price hike. But buses and subway are the daily necessity of the oridnary folks. When government cuts back even on taxi fares, isn't it rather humorous that the most underprivileged, the elderly in particular, are being ripped off by the bus companies? What is their philosophy, I wonder...

postscript: oh, by the way, if you read the statement made by your transport minister at the legislature, you might wonder if she's the spokesman for the bus companies. What a shame.

post-postscript: the government just says discount is ultimately a matter for the bus companies to decide because it is a free market. What a nonsense! Had the public transport sector ever been a free market, the government shouldn't have meddled with the fare increase applications every year. Had this been true, we could have stopped paying for the salary for the bunch of bureaucrats at the transport department (what are they for if not regulating the market??)

Would the government just stop such nonsense every now and then when it wants to cover up its own incompetence? You have insulted the sanctity of free market ideology and what's more, you've insulted our intelligence. (Remember what Al Pacino says in Godfather to his brother-in-law who's betrayed his clan? "Please don't say that you're innocent...You're insulting my intelligence.")

Why should you be paying for the retraining fees of somebody else?

"Why don't you just cut the crap and get to the point?", said my professor to a student.

The same should be said of our legislators and officials. There're some plainly simple issues that I fail to see why they got so entangled.

The levy on hiring foreign domestic helpers to retrain the local workforce is a classic example. Yes, this issue has been so controversial and confusing since inception. But you only need to ask yourself three questions -

1. Why the local workforce needs to be retrained in the first palce? Answer: they're the unfortunate who lost their jobs because of Hongkong's economic transition.

2. Who are being punished by this retraining levy? Answer: the middle class employers of domestic helpers and those helpers.

3. Are they responsible for the plight of those losing their jobs?

Well, I think the question answers itself. The retraining of those unfortunate is the responsibility of society and government as a whole. It's plainly unfair to single out and lay the burden on the middle class. If these people got the chance to elect their own government, I can ensure you our labor minister would need to be retrained first.

09 December, 2008


I happen to have come across a snapshot TV program on current affairs these two days. I only got to know from a friend that the host used to be a participant in beauty contest (this aroused my curiosity as such an intellectual disposition is extremely rare - if not totally non-existent, forgive me - amongst the local celebrities). She attempts to do a sweeping account of the fundamental reasons for the failures of the Hongkong administration (what a daring attempt within three minutes on air!). As it relates to the various posts I've been writing these days, allow me to recap her points here -

1. An unelected chief executive (or "elected", of some sort);

2. A cabinet loosely and hastily pulled together, totally lacking in esprit de corps;

3. A civil service that is capable of only execution and inexperienced in policy-making; and

4. A shark-like media that prides itself on paparazzi and feeds on scandals and rumors.

Any of these points deserves a doctoral thesis. But on the civil service, well, how many times have I heard the same being reiterated time and again when the government stumbles on something? So I feel compelled to dismiss this commonly held misconception (or hearsay) here.

If what you have in mind of the civil service is the day-to-day postal clerk or registrars manning the immigration counter, then I have nothing further to add. Afterall, they're paid to execute whatever policies decided by top leadership. So I guess most people are criticising the more elitist administrative officers (the AOs). Immediately after the handover, it was particularly fashionable to lay the blame on the AOs. They've become the fallen angels overnight after Chris Patten set on his cruise back home. It looked as if we'd all be better off once got rid of them.

But contrary to what most people think, AOs did have a lot of role to play in policy-making before 1997. If one ever bothers to read the government papers (e.g. the public consultation documents, LegCo Briefs or de-classified ExCo papers), they are all about policies. And they were all drafted and crafted by the AOs. Afterall, what were the AOs paid to do if not policy-making??

It is totally untrue to think that all policies were designed (or divined) by the brilliant think tanks in London. The British government simply had too much to bother itself. In fact, on various controversial policies/crises the local colonial administration went into conflicts against their masters at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It's also untrue to think that the British are inherently smarter than local Chinese in policy thinking. There's some cultural difference in their working style but I would say it's a hundred times more difficult for a Chinese to get into the AO service back in 1960s or 1970s than an average Briton. Many of them were indeed talented.

So the real problem is actually a succession problem: the rapid localization starting 1980s meant a lot of middle-rank expatriate officers left. Gone with them was the valuable experience that took ten to twenty years for an officer to accumulate. That's a big loss to the institutional memory of the service and this middle layer, as anyone can tell from real experience, is really the backbone of the government. The vacuum was quickly filled up by many local junior officers who might not have been promoted that fast in the old days. They might be just as talented, but certainly not as experienced as their predecessors. So the problem is not that they're not British, but that they're not experienced enough.

If anything, the AOs' role in policy-making has only been greatly diminished (and increasingly so) AFTER 1997. The reasons? A more vocal legislature, the shark-like media and lack of political leadership are all candidates. When more and more political appointees are coming onstage, and when people with no credible credentials of public service are sitting on top of you, and when promotion is more and more based on favoritism and a yes-man culture, there's little serious policy to be made.

And thus begins the real decline of Hongkong.

05 December, 2008

Monkey bureau, monkey park; monkey city, monkey gov

Sometime ago I wrote about the monkey problem in Hongkong's country park (October 19). I had a number of exchanges with the agricultural & fisheries authority here.

They're taking a vaccination program to sterilise the monkeys which is expected to complete by 2012 (you may congratulate yourself that it'll be soooner than you can elect your chief executive). As usual, they said they're stepping up enforcement against illegal feeding by visitors (excuse me, I'd never seen an official in the country park doing this).

I pointed to the dire fact that those monkeys are reproducing at spectacular rate and getting more and more aggressive to humans (if the officials just bother to get out of their office and take a look at the field). It shows that whatever measures they've been taking are simply not working.

The reply I got was amusing. I was advised to, amongst other things,

(a) not to infuriate the monkeys by staring at them (well, would anyone be that stupid?);

(b) not to carry a plastic bag to invite attacks (I didn't, but I was threatened even with just a bottle of water in hand); and

(c) not to eat before monkeys.

On the last point I really burst into a laughter. Monkeys are intelligent creatures. They are staring at you from treetop when you think you're eating in private. But since the authority insists that culling is against animal rights, I'd suggest a more straightforward method to deal with the situation. Simply cover all BBQ stoves with concrete and turn the country parks into wild reserve closed to humans. I'm sure this will earn Donald Tsang wild applause from some environmentalists (although this is not enough for a Nobel Peace Prize). In any event, there's no other practical way to deal with the problem if we follow the logic of the authority.

So why am I talking about this apparently small issue? Not only because an old woman got attacked by monkeys last week. But because it's a classic example of how this government works -

1. Ignorance of problem (play ostrich tactics and believe there's nothing wrong; get my monthly paycheck and never bother to do the reality check of what's going on in the field);

2. Denial of problem (if someone complains or brings the problem to their attention, just cut and paste a standard answer; they think they can "write off" a problem in this way);

3. Denial of responsibility (if they'd really been tough on illegal feeding, the problem wouldn't have worsened to such extent and there wouldn't be need for sterilization or culling)

4. Impractical solutions (believes that something works on paper will work in reality)

5. Reluctance to take alternative suggestions (the mentality is that if I were to adopt your suggestion, it would be a loss of face to my authority)

That's why you've got all the fiascoes. It's a culture infesting the whole government machinery, just as the monkeys infesting our country park. Well, I suppose it's not a big deal to reserve our parks for monkeys when the city itself is run by a bunch of monkeys (well-clad and well fed). :)

04 December, 2008

More follies to come of this administration

I don't know when to call a bottom to the stock market but I can assure you that it is not yet the bottom to the falling credibility of the Donald Tsang administration. You can bet to see more follies to come, on even grander scale and in more unimaginable terms.

The essense of the Thai airlift incident is no more than a logistical problem. It's nothing like democratization or minimal wage that involves fundamental rift of interests between different social classes and deep-rooted ideological debate. Failure on such a problem signifies a fundamental weakness in this administration.

If I may, the latest statement by the Rt. Hon. Henry Tang can be reduced to three simple points -

1. Basically, we've done nothing wrong (well, this core message permeated all officials statements by the government so far)
2. All decisions are collective decisions
3. We're just following an established mechanism that's been effective all along

Now, mind these phrases - "established mechanism", "effective all along". I bet that if you look into the government archive for the last ten years, that's the most common "justification" for all policy or administrative blunders, big or small. Well, you can say the whole HKSAR government for the last ten years was an established mechanism of some sort (writ large). Has that been effective? I think my question answers itself.

And collective responsibility? Excuse me? That was the wisdom of the colonial administration, I recall. Suspected to be yet another political mine planted by the British, was it not already swept away by the SAR government six years ago? We were told in 2002, when the government wanted you to pay the extra millions for the politically appointed ministers, that "they would be accountable to the Chief Executive for the success or failure of matters falling within the portfolios assigned to them by the Chief Executive. They would accept total responsibility and they may have to step down for serious failures relating to their portfolios." (These undertakings are not my invention; see notes below)

So what's the reason for all this nonsense? If I may summarise in one phrase, it's the "arrogance of power" - the very same thing that I said back in 2003 which brought us all the dislocations and sufferings then. It seems our "leaders" of today have learnt nothing (of that lesson) and forgotten nothing (of their good old days' glory).

p.s. I just learnt that a bunch of local taxi drivers had obstructed the highway to the airport (probably inspired by the Thai) in protest against the review of taxi fares. The police promptly cleared the road on ground of obstruction to public traffic. Granted, but I can tell you a lot of people are causing more obstruction to public progress by their stupidities.

p.p.s. I don't know what has happened to the government's bilingual policy but there's not even a full english translation of the statement by the Rt. Hon. Henry Tang on the government website! Perhaps they don't want the overseas media know about this?

(Note: Taken ad verbatim from a Legislative Council Paper entitled "Accountability system for principal officials", submitted by the constitutional affairs bureau in April 2002.)

01 December, 2008

postcript to "Such lousy administration..."

Within an hour of my earlier post the Donald Tsang administration took a complete turnaround and said it would arrange for special flights to evacuate Hongkongers stranded in Thailand...

What does that mean? It means when they earlier said it's not effective/not necessary to arrange for chartered flight, they were either making a wrong judgment or blatantly - I have to emphasise this word - lying to you.

Such lousy administration...

When countries like China, France and Australia are sending special planes to evacuate their nationals, I fail to understand why the Hongkong government's officials can still resist public demand for government-chartered flight to fly out the stranded citizens in Thailand. Readers only need to ask the following questions -

1. Do you really believe (as the government would have you believe) that an airline manager will be more persuasive than our security minister in securing landing rights for our planes?

2. Do they know that Hongkong is the fifth largest importer of Thai goods and services? Hongkong extended a one-billion-US dollar loan to Thailand when the baht was hit by speculators in the 1997 financial turmoil. Does the Hongkong governmnet really have no leverage to press the Thai government?

3. Do they know there's a Thai Consulate-General in Hongkong? Do they know Hongkong keeps an economic and trade office in Singapore that works like a quasi-consulate covering the whole SE Asia? Why are you, as citizens, paying the bills for this office in peacetime? Aren't they supposed to build the rapport with local authorities that can be useful in emergency?

4. Where has your security minister gone? Where is his politically appointed assistant who - as you were told by Donald Tsang just six months ago - was paid the attractive salary to explain things to the public?

At the heart of the issue we see a government that is -

a. Seriously lagging behind events; reactive (badly) rather than proactive, with neither foresight for planning nor hindsight for correcting its own mistakes;

b. Appearing callous to people's needs in time of crisis and clumsy in articulating its solutions or actions to people;

c. Failing to understand the very nature of this issue: it is not a business matter for airlines to sort out for their customers, but a crisis endangering the public safety of your citizens abroad.

Lastly, I bet the government can make up thousands of defensive lines to take in response to my questions. Well, in that case and if you're a Hongkong citizen reading this blog, you only need to ask them one final quesition: If Macau can, why not you?

(p.s. If I were the Chief Executive, the first thing I would do is to put my security chief on the next flight to Thailand and tell him: either you get my people back or you're gonna stay there with them!)