Governance

Today is the 32nd Sunday and the scripture readings at Mass are taken from 2 Maccabees, 2 Thessalonians and Luke on Jesus’ response to the Sadducees. My favourite priest friend Robert Ng picked up resurrection and everlasting life as the theme for reflecting on the three readings. Robert reminded his congregation that a key belief of Christians – as articulated in the Nicene Creed – is that we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, such that Christian should embrace rather than fear death. Indeed, Christian ought to be able to say to death in the face, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Robert also talked about the desire of the average person to leave a legacy after his or her life; and referred to ancient Chinese sayings of the three most common routes, namely through one’s virtues and virtuous life, as exemplified by Mother Teresa, through one’s achievements as demonstrated by great leaders and acknowledged by many people, and through one’s words or writings, as illustrated by renowned annals in history worldwide. I quietly and irreverently reminded myself why I had started writing my own memoirs.

A friend suggested that I write more on geopolitical issues along the vein of Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore and who has had at least two notable careers, 33 years in diplomacy and 15 years in academia. This friend must have grossly overrated my academic or intellectual capabilities; but I quietly thanked him for the suggestion. My credentials are limited to 33 years of pen pushing or papers shifting in the Hong Kong Civil Service under first, the British and later, the Chinese governments, and probably a similarly long if not longer career in volunteering work. And I could have disappointed a few friends who bought my first memoir expecting to find juicy stuff about the governments that I had served.

Nevertheless, I am not disinterested in geopolitical issues; and I believe that no one can avoid dealing with politics. There used to be a belief – certainly in Hong Kong – that the Civil Service should remain neutral. Perhaps, as Alex Lo has highlighted recently in SCMP, there is a difference between impartiality and neutrality; and increasingly, “civil servants will be asked to show more commitments, say, to patriotism and national education.” Alex Lo also referred to an essay by Ian Scott before the handover that “civil service neutrality in Hong Kong is a myth.” The 2019 riots orchestrated by many young people, aided and abetted by foreign funds and personnel and somewhat unopposed if not assisted by many staff in the Civil Service ought to be a wakeup call for Hong Kong in general and the HKSAR Government in particular. More importantly, it was iron clad proof that the Civil Service was never neutral, for it would take many years to reach such an irremediable situation. Hong Kong is fortunate to have China taking prompt and effective action to stop the nonsense perpetuated in no small parts by a less than neutral Civil Service. I was rather worried at the time, and I was surprised that the Civil Service had harboured so many bad apples that would not bat an eyelid to bite the hands that fed them. In the end, it was a question of governance. The government at the time was clearly not effective and successive leaders had failed to detect the signals and warnings since the handover. Many of my friends are still very negative about the efficacy or effectiveness of civil servants to fix anything because of the apparent lack of a transparent reward and punishment mechanism, but are hopeful that John Lee may change the pattern.

I and the surviving Class of 63 from Wah Yan were so disappointed and indeed aghast to see images of Wah Yan students lining the streets with joined hands to add to the agitation and street unrests. It was totally unthinkable and unimaginable. One of these classmates had been a major benefactor of the School. The scene there and then changed him overnight and he resolved never again to donate to the School Foundation. His action was not unnoticed and the current Principal tried to speak to him, with the message that the teachers who had misguided the students were no longer working at the School. One has to be less than being stupid to take the message at face value. How can things change so fast in three years – once again, we are talking about attitude changes and governance which would take a bit of time. Hong Kong has returned to China for 25 years, but the attitude of a great many in the Civil Service hasn’t changed.

In another article, Alex Lo, noting that the minimum PhD student stipend in Britain has been increased by £2,000 per year, but still well below the £20,000 takings for a full-time British worker, concluded that these PhDs from the West should come to China, where their talents would be respected and valued. I also picked up at my visit to the Hong Kong Fintech Week that most start-ups rely on government subsidies to survive, and staff are in general not well paid until and unless they have proved their worth or usefulness. On the other hand, civil servants are still rather well paid, particularly the Police, which are still reporting a shortage of over 5,000 people. The new initiatives of the government on recruitment and training of civil servants are therefore well justified and ought to be implemented in full speed.

On this hopeful note, I turned on the TV and watched a few games of Rugby live. The mood at the stadium was so upbeat and hardly dampened by the rain at all. Let’s hope that the Rugby Sevens heralded a change in mood for the better and that we can expect a better tomorrow.

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