SCMP Friday, February 16, 2001

New-style leadership crucial for next phase

The new line-up at the top of the Hong Kong Government announced yesterday provides continuity as well as changes much needed in this time of rapid change.
Almost four years after Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China, our community's confidence in the "one country, two systems" arrangement remains fragile. Our new political system is still evolving and adjusting to the new situation. And the civil service, which as the formulator and executor of new policies is naturally at the forefront of any changes, is trying hard to adapt.
Therefore, appointing someone with whom civil servants are familiar to the post of Chief Secretary for Administration, the figurative head of all 190,000 civil servants, represents a great comfort to them all.
The choice of current Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is also reassuring for the 500 or so administrative officers who form the backbone of the Government's policy-formulation and -execution process - especially as it is he, as the new Chief Secretary, who will be charged with designing and implementing the new system of accountability for our senior officials that was promised by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in his Policy Address last October.
Under the new system, the top layer of senior officials will be cut off from the civil service and instead serve as political appointees of the Chief Executive. They will no longer be able to claim political neutrality.
In the early stages of these changes, it will be particularly important that the appointees and the existing establishment of permanent civil servants work well together. And having an old hand from the civil service in the top position of Chief Secretary will help to ensure such close co-operation.
Having a banker and businessman such as Antony Leung Kam-chung serve as the new Financial Secretary is not new to Hong Kong. And the reason for the appointment might well be the same as it was on the previous occasion when an outsider was brought in to fill this post - when former Swire Group chairman Sir John Bremridge was appointed in the early 1980s - that is, we need a new mindset to deal with a difficult situation and the economy is the biggest issue now facing Hong Kong.
Although we are recovering from the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, with economic growth back on track, new problems are emerging. These include the widening gap between rich and poor, a shrinking tax base and a looming budget deficit, as well as a rapidly changing new economy with built-in uncertainties.
We need someone in the position of the Government's top economic policy-maker who is business-oriented, proactive and who can run Hong Kong like a growing enterprise. In this sense, a businessman has an advantage over a regular civil servant. In the era of rivalry among Asian cities, when various governments are using all means at their disposal to gain a preferential position in the mainland market before China joins the World Trade Organisation, Hong Kong cannot simply maintain its old policy of positive non-intervention. To do so could be deadly. In a fiercely competitive global economy, the role of government in regional development - and in enhancing and enabling the business sector in the fight to be more competitive - is no longer in doubt.
More than ever, we need new blood and a new mindset in the position of Financial Secretary to steer our ship in the right direction.
The new setup at the top has to be part of the upcoming change we can expect within our government. The trend is definitely towards a more proactive, performance-based team with a rationalised, streamlined working relationship inside and outside the system that will enable the senior government officials to perform their duties with less restraint.
This new line-up is crucial for the next phase of development of Hong Kong. With the transition finally behind us, this can mark a real beginning.
Shiu Sin-por is executive director of the One Country, Two Systems Research Institute.