SCMP Friday, February 16, 2001

Delicate balancing act

It took such time in arriving, and the result had been so long anticipated, that the formal announcement of Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's elevation to Chief Secretary for Administration had an aura of anti-climax. Apart from a slight confusion on Tuesday when it was rumoured Beijing was holding back on endorsing his appointment, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But the news is no less welcomed by the public because of that, despite Mr Tsang's revelation that he thrice asked Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to let him stay in the Financial Secretary's post.
Perhaps it was a characteristic touch of modesty that prompted him to recount the incident. Anyone familiar with Mr Tsang's personality knows he will relish his new role, even if he does have private reservations about his present job passing into the hands of a non-civil servant. It is no secret that he would have preferred to work alongside former secretary for financial services Rafael Hui Si-yan, who left the Government last year to head the Mandatory Provident Fund Scheme Authority.
There could be no more convincing token of Mr Antony Leung Kam-chung's appetite for public service than his decision to take a huge salary cut, reportedly of around $12 million, to $2.45 million a year. Nor is there any question that he has every skill necessary to make an excellent financial secretary. His high-flying career in banking aside, the Executive Councillor is no stranger to government service. He served as a member, then chairman, of the University and Polytechnic Grants Committee in the early 1990s and has been a member of the Exchange Fund Advisory Committee since 1993. As head of the Education Commission after the handover, he has won respect for his reformist tendencies and openness to new ideas.
But Mr Leung may not find it easy to adapt to the civil service culture. A tendency to speak frankly, and his single-mindedness in pushing through the policies he believes in, could ruffle a few feathers in his first months in office. He might also find himself open to the charges sometimes made against the only other outsider to occupy the financial secretary's post. Swire taipan Sir John Bremridge, who served between 1981 and 1986, was sometimes accused of bias towards the hong. Mr Leung will have to ensure all his decisions are transparent and demonstrably fair.
There was a time when Mr Leung said his character was the reason he chose not to go into politics. Apparently the lure of one of the most high-profile and influential posts in Asia proved too tempting to resist.
After the Secretary for Justice and the Secretary for Health and Welfare, the Financial Secretary is the third senior government job to go outside the civil service. That is likely to be the trend as the Chief Executive seeks ways to introduce some form of ministerial system. But it is expected to take a long time before the Chief Secretary comes from private industry, because it will remain a priority to appoint someone who understands the traditions and inner workings of the civil service to maintain its morale. In that respect, Mr Tsang's qualifications are impeccable.
He has the trust and confidence of his colleagues, and the support of the general public. The burdens of his present job, which he referred to in his speech yesterday, have strengthened his self-confidence and helped him to mature a lot in recent years.
But he now takes on a greater challenge, and he has a predecessor whose stature as an outspoken and tireless defender of Hong Kong's way of life will be hard to match. Mr Tsang has to bear in mind that, as Chief Secretary, he will not have the same leeway that he has enjoyed up to now. The master of the colourful phrase and throwaway line must think before he speaks and steer away from exaggerated comments. An ill-chosen remark can have much more resonance in his new post.
One advantage Mr Tsang does have over Anson Chan Fang On-sang, however, is in being Mr Tung's own nominee. Tension at the top has made it difficult for the Government to function properly. But Mr Tsang may have it easier in advising Mr Tung and suggesting ways to package controversial policies.
Provided he and Mr Leung are able to forge a working relationship similar to the "Anson and Donald" duo - and that may take time - harmony will reign in Lower Albert Road. And that - in theory at least - should be better for us all.