SCMP Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Put an end to hysterics over the civil service leadership

When Sir David Trench was preparing to retire as governor in 1969, panic swept Hong Kong. What would we do without that pair of steady hands at the helm? Most critically, how would civil service morale hold up without that calm, familiar face in Government House? Letters were written to editors, petitions were tirelessly signed and dispatched to London, hands were wrung.
Sir David eventually stayed until October, 1971. He was replaced by Sir Murray MacLehose. Once again, there was a fit of hysterics. Would the new man, a diplomat rather than a tried and trusted colonial civil servant, understand the delicate niceties of public-servant values? Well, the outsider took over and life continued. When it came to his turn to step down, we went through a similar wailing chorus; would this damage civil-service morale?
We had repeat performances, in spades, when Anson Chan Fang On-sang was preparing to retire earlier this year. Yet the world has not come to an end since then. A similar parade of morale nonsense arose when public servants received a recent pay rise; they should think themselves fortunate that in the present circumstances they are getting an extra cent.
Let's get it straight. We've got 182,000 civil servants. Some are there because they have a vocation; policemen, park wardens and practitioners of varied disciplines work for government because that's the only employer which offers the jobs they want. Others are in routine jobs because they, sensibly, value the old iron-rice-bowl safety and stability of a civil service job and a comfortable pension.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. By and large, Hong Kong is well served by its civil service. Despite many jibes at bureaucrats, sometimes well justified, the bulk of our public servants are dedicated, conscientious and talented.
But can we, for mercy's sake, get over this endless moaning about their morale. It's simply not true.
In 1998, Peter Lai Hing-ling stepped down as Secretary for Security. Politicians and other semi-professional fusspots said the departure of this pin-striped civilian could hit police morale, a notion so ludicrous that 30,000 coppers were almost rolling on their beats with laughter.
In the midst of this constant childish pantomime, some manage to keep a grip on reality. During the hair-wrenching that accompanied the resignation of Mrs Chan, Secretary for Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping made a statement of sanity. "The civil service has a healthy and well-rounded system to deal with changes of personnel," he said.
Quite right. And it would be a shameful, slack and incompetent system if it could not take in its stride the departure of any individual, even one as popular and effective as the former chief secretary.
The head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong, Dr Chiu Chi-yu, underlined this point. He noted the impact of an individual leaving an organisation depends on the degree of formality in its management. "A formal organisation is managed largely by rules and policies, and the impact of any personnel change should have little impact on the integrity of the organisation," he said. "For the civil service in Hong Kong, I don't think I need to comment on the extent of its formalisation."
He's quite right, of course. The civil service is bound by rules. Regulations are their bible. Promotion, discipline, pay, conditions of service, everything is properly and staidly laid down in procedures.
When a person leaves, he or she may be missed, but like the Pearl River, the civil service rolls imperturbably onwards.
Kevin Sinclair ( ) is a Hong Kong-based journalist.