SCMP Tuesday, July 3, 2001
Expat cops on the outside
There was a time when expatriate police in the then-Royal Hong Kong Police Force were treated like royalty. Recruited from overseas, mostly Britain, they were given spacious flats, a job for life - or at least until 1997 - on pensionable terms with promises of fast promotion and annual trips home.
They were the envy of Hong Kong-Chinese counterparts who still refer sarcastically to the colonial era as "the good old days".
"At the bottom of our hearts, it did not feel good," said Tony Liu Kit-ming, chairman of the Local Inspectors' Association.
Now, expatriates mostly serve on contracts which come with no official guarantee they will be re-employed after a few years of service. And they receive a housing allowance which has shrunk in recent years. They have to compete with locals for promotion, and are concerned about rumours of a cap being placed on the number of foreign police officers allowed to move up the ranks.
Conditions have changed so much from "the good old days" of the past that local police officers now feel some sympathy for their colleagues from overseas. "In certain aspects, the Government treats expatriate officers worse than local officers," said Mr Liu.
The police force itself seems ambivalent about the role of its foreign officers in the post-colonial era and appears none too keen to promote them as an asset. When asked by the South China Morning Post to provide an officer to be interviewed about life as an expatriate in the force, the police public relations branch declined, saying none were available.
Nevertheless, expatriate officers are putting on a brave face in public. Chairman of the Overseas Inspectors' Association Mark Ford-McNicol said the police force management was seeking to make it clear to the 350 or so expatriate officers remaining in the force that they were valued members. "They seem to want to reassure expatriate officers there is no move afoot to get rid of them.
"To tell you the truth, the force management bends over backward to make sure the expatriates are not feeling left out."
When the force's public relations arm failed to put forward an expatriate policeman for an interview, the Post asked an officer who served before, during and after 1997 for his views. "There were a lot of things that needed changing but have not," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Nepotism in the force is worse," he said, adding that his hopes that localisation would see an end to the past practice of different factions within the force owing allegiances to different senior officers had proved unfounded.
"Before, we had the messes where senior expatriate officers would ask their followers to 'come have a drink with me'. Now I find it is more insidious, they [Hong Kong-Chinese] go to expensive restaurants and there are expensive bottles of wine going round."
Although promotion was supposed to be decided on the basis of merit, the officer said there was much concern about rumours that only a limited number of foreigners would be promoted. However, there is no solid evidence to back these claims.
Criminologist assistant professor Wong Kam-chow, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the promotion system had been working "quite well" since 1997 and he saw no evidence expatriates were being overlooked.
The Overseas Inspectors' Association's largely-positive view is a marked change from April last year, when then-chairman Stephen Handley said morale was low, foreigners felt isolated and excluded from good jobs on the grounds of race.
Then-assistant commissioner Michael Dowie did little to help their confidence at the time when he told the Post: "I believe that expatriates in Hong Kong continue to do a very important job, but the numbers will fall in due course. I don't see [them] as an absolute necessity for Hong Kong."
Now, Mr Handley said morale had improved, "things are looking stable" and foreigners felt they could be promoted on merit.
Mr Ford-McNicol said morale last year had been harmed by certain civil service reforms that had had a negative impact on the force. One significant change since then has been the retirement of Eddie Hui Ki-on and his replacement by Tsang Yam-pui as Police Commissioner. "The new management team listens to us and consults," said Mr Ford-McNicol. "The bottom line is we are still valued, we are being looked after and we are still here, and will be for another 15 to 20 years."
About 350 foreign officers remain in the force, and 200 of these are inspectors coming mostly from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The remainder serve as superintendents. Five have the rank of assistant commissioner.
Fears of a mass exodus of police from overseas were never fully realised. About 150 officers, who served as British civil servants, retired before the handover, although more than 100 others stayed. But there has nonetheless been a steady drain - the 200 expatriate inspectors currently serving is down from 928 in 1990. Just before the 1997 handover, there were 590 expatriate police.
Far from being an anachronism in Hong Kong under Chinese rule, Mr Ford-McNicol said officers from overseas brought a different perspective to the force because they were educated, and sometimes trained, abroad. They were also valuable in the Government's efforts to portray Hong Kong as an open and vibrant society.
"It is an avowed policy that they want Hong Kong to be an international city. The fact they have overseas officers in the police force and ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] is an asset."
A carefully-worded response from the Police Public Relations Bureau to questions about expatriate officers emphasised that local and overseas officers enjoyed equal status.
"The skills and benefits that an officer can bring to the force depend on his or her experience, qualifications and professional abilities, regardless of his or her status as a local or expatriate officer," it said.
Expatriate officers are a valuable asset to the force and they contribute to the overall efficient running of the force and to Hong Kong society at large".
The high visibility of expatriate police can also attract unwelcome publicity. An early morning outbreak of violence outside the Devil's Advocate bar in Wan Chai in February was splashed across the pages of English and Chinese-language newspapers because it involved five off-duty senior expatriate officers who had earlier been celebrating Burns Night, commemorating the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, at police headquarters.
Mr Liu, of the Local Inspectors' Association, said the issue of expatriate police was a "very sensitive topic" because of the force's colonial past and differences in treatment between them and Hong Kong-Chinese officers.
He expressed concern about the way officers from overseas were now treated, citing the requirement for them to report their financial position when renewing contracts as "discriminatory".
Working on contract terms meant, theoretically, there was no guarantee they would be rehired at the end of their contract, said Mr Liu.
But Mr Ford-McNicol said the commissioner has indicated that expatriate officers on contract - they were only hired on those terms after 1990 - would have them renewed until they reached retirement age.
Glenn Schloss (
) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.