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The Voice of the People Heard

The Chief Executive's Fourth Policy Address has been generally well received. It has won public approbation not so much for any major policy breakthrough or project proposals for grand, creative designs, or because of generous allocations to welfare but because this policy address has highlighted the Chief Executive's sincerely made pledge to "listen to the people, and address the real issues on hand".

This cautious approach to aim at only attainable achievements is what we need during the current low in our social and political sentiments. I strongly agree with the practical attitude behind this approach and would like to address three of the issues mentioned: a) politics, b) the economy, and c) the training of young leaders.

Politics: Not the End of the Story

Before the policy address was unveiled, I had already spoken to the Chief Executive and publicly commented in the media on causes behind the somewhat strained relationship between the Legislature and the Executive. The main reason is the insufficient clarity in the definitions of the responsibilities and authorities of the individual members of the Executive. This lack of clarity has made the monitoring work by the Legislative Council almost untenable. Some matters, for example, require only a simple response from an individual official concerned to square all matters but under the collective responsibility rule of the Civil Service where everyone seems always to be blameless, this simple matter can easily blow out of all proportions and end up targeting the whole government structure or the few most senior ranking government officials, or even culminating in "conspiracy" theories against the Chief Executive personally. This tendency has already added much fuel to more exaggeration in the already sensitive media and for the public of Hong Kong.

The Policy Address has introduced new ideas of developing measures for reviewing the accountability of civil servants. Although the details have not yet been worked out, the general direction is clear and can be considered quite a breakthrough. The Council should welcome the Chief Executive's resolve and accord him the go-ahead for reform. In previous Legco meetings, I have twice declined to support no-confidence motions on civil servants, because of the obvious need for clarification on the way to deal with full-time civil servants' terms of service as a direct consequence after passing the motion and the issue of unclear political accountability, which was not previously considered part of the job for apolitical career civil servants. For that I have had to address challenges from the Accountancy Functional Constituency in the last election.

Now that an open discussion on reviewing the system of accountability is put high on the agenda, I personally feel my previous position vindicated. If the Government does not accept any change, it will certainly do itself more and more irreparable damage. Council members who want to work rationally for the common good will find it more and more difficult to defend an inadequate civil service system that is given authority without proper accountability by the constitution.

Reinforcing the accountability of individual government officials can stabilize the structure of senior administration and facilitate and focus the Legislative Council's monitoring work. However, this issue is not the main cause of the disharmony between the Legislature and the Executive. The fundamental reason is simply that elected members who have worked so hard and actively participated in every way so as to be elected to represent the public, still have no share of the mandate to govern. They have problems not only in fulfilling their election promises, and when the Government ignores their appeals, they have problems in explaining to their supporters why things are the way they are. This situation creates a likely phenomenon: the Government is cast as a dictator monopolizing all information, resources and power to rule; and LegCo Members are forced to play the role of the suppressed people representatives only busy scoring petty political 'brownie-points'. Such a formula for confrontation creates antagonistic attitudes between the Executive and Legco members, and results in disputes. In a dispute, Council members would retaliate at all costs, put on the pressure, or adopt the unworthy tactics of indiscriminate verbal attacks, to retain the support of their own constituency.

In fact, in his analysis, the Chief Executive has made it clear that it is impossible to have any "ministerial" system with different political parties sharing true power. The opportunities for cooperation between the Chief Executive and the political parties have to somehow rely on some other form. As politicians and the public are gradually coming to terms with this reality, the focus of discussion has now shifted to the diminishing roles of the Executive Council. Many of the proposals, to varying extents, are a revival of the idea of a "super-LegCo" in which senior officials and a few selected influential LegCo members work together in pledging loyalty to the Chief Executive.

I think this kind of system is worth considering. But such a system can only succeed if the Chief Executive is very politically adept and also very good at listening to and reconciling different political assertions. As for the selected Exco members, they too must not think of their role merely as a symbol of status, but rather, a selfless commitment transcending their own interests and that of their party in order to assume and exercise collective responsibility and political leadership.

The talk about enhancing complementarity and better communication sounds fine and is always sort of applicable, yet it is difficult to put into practice. Without common grounds or common goals for communication, the attempts are futile, like going through the motions of set routines, and a cumbersome burden for government officials. Besides, there is no guarantee for results. The reaction from Legco members in practice will remain to be tested. The fact is, there is not one moment that the Government and the members are not working together for the common objective of serving the society. However, this appeal for better communication remains a great but vague idea. It cannot forestall the conflicts arising out of different roles and strategies. That is why being willing to communicate does not mean that people are ready to concede.

Over the years, as long as the Government did not make any serious mistakes, Council members have supported the Government. Now, the Government is saying that we need to communicate and for many members this is nothing new. In the long run though, merely communicating, though a good political gesture, cannot but follow the way of American political lobbying which consumes a lot of resources and manpower. In reality, government officials hold the trumps in government policy. Only if they can look at issues more from the point of view of Council members and think how members can account to the public for what they are doing can political cooperation and harmony be achieved. This idea is not at all innovative, neither is it unreasonable. But for a bureaucracy lacking the support of a proper public mandate, this is a way forward which will strengthen representation of ordinary citizens and benefit the long-term, stable development of the administration.

Economy: Support Professionals in China Ventures

On the issue of economic policy, from being an executive-led government, the Government is reverting to the role of a "small government" providing active support and accurate analysis of the whole business environment. This kind of direction is what I have always strongly supported.

Even before the policy address was made, I had openly indicated that we should let the business sector find its own solutions since they have regained their confidence. After dealing with the economic crisis and the re-organization of the basic financial structure, the key issue for the Government should be how to support the victims of the financial turmoil and those who have not been able to adjust so quickly to the transitions in the economy. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have traditionally depended on local markets and those with low-skills or manual labourers are the ones who have suffered most. Since, the Policy Address mentioned "helping the poor and the needy", the Chief Executive's kind intention should be encouraged despite the fact that not much resources have actually been allocated to this area.

I also strongly agree with the Chief Executive's macro-view of economic development. With China's entering the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the development of China's Northwest region, Hong Kong people should really give up the idea of a "Hong Kong village" and extend their horizon beyond the Pearl River Delta, maybe targeting the "Greater China".

The Policy Address has expanded the horizons of businessmen in Hong Kong. However, for professionals and small and medium entrepreneurs who are not incredibly well resourced, stretching their frontline this far is not a simple matter. Especially if you consider the fact that markets in the Mainland of China are still very protective towards its local people and intervention from the administration is not uncommon. What the SAR Government can do is only "to make every effort to keep ... well informed of developments in the opening up of the China market. (para 38)". The influence it has is minimal. Even though led by those the Chief Executive deemed to be "high calibre professionals who should have a competitive edge in the Mainland market", without the appropriate support from the Government, such professionals and small and medium enterprises without international background and global support are unlikely to make much headway.

Take the example of the accountants. Hong Kong accountants wishing to expand their business on the Mainland can strive for professional qualifications to practice, arrange take-overs and mergers, enter joint ventures or promote co-operative professional alliances. However, in reality, even after successfully obtaining the appropriate professional qualifications (which is difficult to do), one still cannot practise. Even if one is willing to provide some other limited professional services, there are still many complicated procedures and applications to go through. Mergers or entering into joint ventures are almost impossible. Besides not having many avenues for raising capital, approval from the central government is also hard to come by. Even for simple co-operative professional alliances, there are many rules to adhere to. Notwithstanding the expertise of Hong Kong professionals, the opportunity to exercise that expertise in China is still very far from their reach.

In this Policy Address, the Government intends to change its monitoring role to a more supportive one. This is a good beginning. After the Policy Address was given, I responded immediately by saying that the Government should consider assigning to the Secretary for Trade and Industry the responsibility of planning, promotion and support, during the economic restructuring, to help professionals play a role of increasing importance. Looking at examples in other countries, professionals are often the vanguard for industry. They explore the business environment, legal system, financial situation and taxation system of the country as well as the problems of management. Restricting the operation of professionals, would also increase the anxieties of investors.

However, like small and medium enterprises with limited capital and manpower, local professionals face similar opportunities and the challenges of the opening of the Mainland market. At the same time, they are still trying to deal with the impact of the arrival of the new economy and the increasing demands arising from the revamping of our financial regulations and structure. Just dealing with the existing economic difficulties and the newly implemented laws on hand is difficult enough, so expanding their business inland is rather like a tempting but unaffordable aspiration.

The Chief Executive has said in the Policy Address that he would insist on "reforms to continue" with "priorities set". Now that the financial turmoil is over, if professionals want to seize the "opportunities abound" and expand their market, the Government should relax its regulations, to allow the professionals to advance without too many burdens so that they can realize their potential and increase their competitive edge against other players in the local and international markets.

Youth: Changing Style and Tone

The fourth Policy Address has clearly changed its style and tone. Youth development is no longer being simply dealt with as a matter of educational reform. Having been the Chairman of the Commission on Youth for more than nine years, I think the new policy direction must be a refreshing change for youth workers. It evidenced the Chief Executive's open mindedness and courage for reform. This policy speech will, no doubt, bring hope to the youth services community which have, for many years, been curtailed by limited resources.

With the changes over time, youths are facing a brand new social environment. The value system has become ever more complicated as a result of the intercultural exchanges between the East and West. It has left some youth confused and dis-oriented. Education provides a solid foundation for intellectual growth. Informal education such as civic education and leadership training can foster the youths' commitment and enable them to participate in the political process. If the Chief Executive can open up the Government's consultation network, take the youths' opinions seriously and deal with them systemically, their exposure and confidence will increase, making them more ready to contribute towards building Hong Kong's future.

Conclusion: A self-reflective Civilised Community

After the Policy Address was given, I surveyed the opinions of groups of Accountants. I learned that one locally born accountant with British decadence has planned to send an e-mail Christmas message to his friends including the following passage:

" There is presently a lot of criticism of our chief executive Tung Chee Hwa, mainly arising from the 1998 recession which is not the fault of the government. I shall always be grateful to Tung Chee Hwa, because since his appointment in 1997, he and the Chinese authorities got the most important thing right, i.e. the handover of Hong Kong to China. If Tung Chee Hwa had made a mess of that, Hong Kong would not be today a thriving international city. But people's memories are short and they complain about the irritations of today and forget the achievements of the past. "

I think he is quite right. If it were not for the fact that Mr Tung had held steady on fundamental issues, our discussions these two days could have been much more controversial than these subjective perceptions on government reforms and how to improve the quality of life. In this free and argumentative community of Hong Kong, biting criticism and altercation are a sign and characteristic of the openness of the society. This was so before the resumption of sovereignty, and it is so today. Those in the political circle may not find it to their liking, but the public and people overseas may probably see it as an endearing quality of a self-reflective civilised community. In thanking the Chief Executive, I venture to mention this for his solace and for the encouragement of all of us to continue to strive for a better Hong Kong.

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