Following is the speech by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Anson Chan, at the Asia Society luncheon today (April 19):
In Retrospect and Anticipation
Ronnie, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, Ronnie, thank you for your very kind and warm welcome. All I can say is that it is wonderful to be part of Hong Kong's history and I hope that history will be kind to me. I'd also like to thank all of you for being present here at this luncheon today at the tail end of one's career to be received in this manner and by such an illustrious gathering is an honour indeed. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I would also like to thank you and the Asia Society for your unstinting support for Hong Kong. You and all those associated with Asia Society have been stalwart in your confidence in Hong Kong during the most difficult times, and the establishment of the Asia Society Hong Kong Centre in 1990 speaks eloquently to that.
And I want to thank you also for the invitation to address this large audience today, just 11 days before my retirement from my current post in the civil service of which I have had the privilege to be a member for 38 years, 7 months and two days. This is the last major speech I shall give in my official capacity - a valedictory, I suppose - but it will not, I daresay, be the last time I speak up for Hong Kong.
As I mulled over what I should say today, quite a few thoughts went through my mind. I looked back on some of the good days and bad, the great changes, the moments of high peaks and deep troughs. But I always came back to the sense of excitement and achievement associated with Hong Kong's great post-war success in which I have been fortunate enough to have played a small part.
But how to encompass all this in the short time we have after this splendid lunch? A speech packed with reminiscences? A shopping list packaging our progress over the last 40 years? A "kiss and tell" speech revealing some real or imagined secrets or scandals from the past? Sorry, that's not my style.
So, I have decided to do what I usually do, and that is to speak frankly on a number of issues about which I feel strongly. I feel strongly about them because they are important to the people of Hong Kong, the future success of the SAR and, by extension, to the contribution the SAR can make to our nation.
In short, I want to ask the people of Hong Kong what values they want to protect and preserve in the SAR. I want to ask them to think about those things that give us the edge over our competitors in the region, including cities in the Mainland like Shanghai. And I intend to answer my own questions by saying what I believe they should be. I don't think anyone in this great hall, or outside it for that matter, will be greatly surprised to hear what I believe those values to be. I have been espousing them in one form or another for most of my public life.
But before I do so, I want to indulge in just a little bit of nostalgia. After nearly four decades in the civil service, I think I've earned at least that much. I was looking at figures the other day which drew some comparisons of life in Hong Kong back in 1962, when I joined the civil service, with the situation as it is today.
For example, in 1962 great parts of the New Territories still moved to the rhythm of the seasons of planting and harvest. Buffalo could still be seen in the paddy fields. The population stood at 600,000. Today, there are 3.4 million people living in nine modern high rise new towns beyond the Lion Rock. The fulcrum of our urban metropolis has shifted dramatically in the space of a generation.
Life expectancy in 1962 was 68 for men and 75 for women. Today it is 77 and 82 respectively. Our GDP has increased 150 times over during that period, on average by 14% a year. GDP per capita has multiplied 70 times, from $2,619 in 1962 to $187,105 last year. That's an average annual growth rate of 12%. In 1962, a quarter of a million visitors came to Hong Kong. Last year the number reached a record 13.6 million.
And finally - just one more comparison that is close to my heart. When Katherine Fok and I joined the Administrative Service, as cadets in 1962, there was but one woman in the entire Administrative Service. Today there are 275, or over one in five of the directorate structure. Eight of our Principal Officials are women. Progress indeed.
I have presented this snapshot of how far we have come not to blow the trumpet for government - although I have never shied away from claiming credit for us when it has been due - but rather to make the straightforward point that for all of our faults, real or imagined, the government must have done something right somewhere along the way. I am the first to acknowledge that the creators of Hong Kong's success are its people. I lead the applause for their great qualities - decent, tolerant, hard working, entrepreneurial, fast on their feet, highly-motivated, innovative, outward looking, politically pragmatic, worldly-wise.
But I firmly believe that the Hong Kong administration has over the years provided the physical and legislative infrastructure and the commonsense consensus on social and political issues. We have governed with a light touch and have given our citizens the flexibility and freedom to pursue their dreams and realize their ambitions for themselves and their families.
In many ways, our people stand as a monument to the virtues of self-reliance. They have never been afraid to embrace change and turn it to their advantage. They have never been afraid to embrace risk, and challenge it.
They have been able to do this because history bequeathed to us the vital institutional organs of a free society : the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a clean and accountable administration run by men and women of good conscience. We have here in Hong Kong a civil service that is built on the twin pillars of meritocracy and political neutrality. In this age of globalisation, instant communication and overnight change, this might sound like a quaintly old-fashioned thing to say. But these institutions are so critical to our stability and prosperity that they must endure and survive every fad or fashion or paradigm shift that comes our way.
I can still clearly recall a conversation I had with a senior member of the administrative service not long after I had joined the government. I could not have been much more than 23 years old, but his words have stayed with me since. Anson, he said, you must always remember that you have joined a very special service which has an excellent reputation built up by the people who have gone before you. Your obligations as an administrative officer are simple. You must serve the people well and you must serve them with honour. Remember that duty and honour must always go together.
It's advice I give to young colleagues today.
This is not to suggest that civil servants are trapped in a time warp. The civil service is ever changing, and reforms over the decades - and indeed over the last three years - have seen major advances in efficiency, productivity, cultural attitudes, client- awareness, commitment to higher standards of service delivery, intolerance of corruption and incompetence and - most important of all - commitment to the values of openness, transparency and accountability. All of this has been built on the foundations of the meritocracy and political neutrality I have already described. These values are the one constant, the starting point for all else.
But is this enough to meet the demands of the new millennium? Should we be moving in different directions with changing times? What will provide the best value for the governing systems of the 21st century which genuinely seek to be world class?
This last question was eloquently answered by the distinguished British historian and political journalist, Professor Peter Hennessy, at a conference in Hong Kong entitled " A Civil Service for Asia's World City" in January last year. Professor Hennessy's answer was as follows :
- That in return for a degree of permanence, a largely career civil service recruited on ability alone will in all circumstances facilitate evidence-driven government by speaking truth unto power as its primary and overriding duty.
- And that allied to this is an ethic and a determination that public money will be raised in an equitable and transparent way and used in a corruption free fashion according to those purposes and only those purposes, approved by the legislative part of government.
I am sure you recognize this system so succinctly described. I know it well. It is the system that has been patiently and deliberately constructed over decades in the Hong Kong civil service. It is a system that has seen us through thick and thin. It is a role model I can readily sign up to.
And "speak truth unto power"? What does this mean? It means giving your best advice to superiors based on the best information available and objective analysis even when you know it may not be music to their ears. That is what I and my colleagues have been trained and encouraged to do from the first day of our service. This, in turn, builds trust between officials upwards, downwards and sideways.
This collegiate approach among officials whose relationship is built on trust rather than personal or political whim also provides the protection for individuals within the system. They know they can tender advice without fear or favour, safe in the knowledge that even the most unwelcome advice would not lead to blighted career prospects or unpleasant postings out of earshot of those who may not like what you have to say.
In such a system, currying favour, political correctness, second-guessing and shoe-shining will not get you very far. These are, however, the weaknesses inherent in a more politicized system which, in my view, tends to encourage lower productivity and less accountability but discourage "speaking truth unto power". In examining how best to enhance the accountability of principal officials, the Chief Executive has made it clear that "we will maintain the stability of the civil service structure, preserve the principles of permanence and neutrality of the civil service, and maintain a highly efficient, professional and clean government".
I place heavy emphasis on this matter because, like Professor Hennessy, I believe passionately in the notion of a politically-neutral civil service recruited on the basis of intellectual ability rather than political patronage. In other words, the idea of a lifetime career built around the profession of government. Of course the civil service can benefit by the infusion of outside talent. It has done so in the past and will no doubt do so in the future. But the system must be bigger than any individual, whether from within or without.
The values on which I place such store have been put to the test in recent years, both before and since the transition. I believe the civil service has been more than up to the test, and there are more tests to come. That is made certain by the Basic Law timetable for the development of the democratic process. Our community has big decisions to make in the next few years, in particular about the pace of reaching our ultimate constitutional goal of universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and the possible popular election of the Chief Executive.
I have made it plain in the past that I believe these issues raise such fundamental questions about governance in the SAR that public debate on them cannot be delayed for too much longer. I have not changed my mind about this. We must get the decision right in 2007 and we stand the best chance of doing so if we have a long, measured, structured and rational debate about where to go and how to get there.
In my view there is already too much artificial division in the community. Name-calling and suspicion based on outdated and emotive political labels are no substitute for reasoned discussion. Why do some people insist on using terms like pro-China or anti-China? Or even pro-British? Surely we are all pro-Hong Kong. And that means also that Hong Kong people are as much a part of the country as the other 1.3 billion Chinese on the Mainland, and proud of it.
The Administration is required by our constitution to be accountable to the Legislative Council. Constructive engagement between the Administration and all members of the legislature must be the right way forward. Despite our differences, together we have achieved a great deal in the past. The legislature can take the moral high ground by putting aside prejudices, point-scoring and partisan political ambitions and burying their differences in a way that takes into account the wider interests of the community as a whole. This is what the community expects of our legislators. I believe the Government will continue to play its part in facilitating reasoned discussions within the legislature by engaging its members in policy formulation at an early stage.
In my experience Hong Kong has moved forward on a belief in progress and fair-minded consensus building, where decisions are arrived at by reason and compromise. I believe that's what people still want. It is not surprising to me that they ask whether the current constitutional arrangements are capable of delivering the political goods.
All the more reason for the community to come together in a pragmatic way to decide, in the spirit of give and take, on the constitutional arrangements that best suit our unique circumstances. And those unique circumstances do, of course, include the interest Beijing will naturally take in this matter. While any debate cannot ignore this fact of life, it does not necessarily have to subdue or distort it.
I say this with some conviction because my own experience as Chief Secretary for Administration since 1 July 1997 has assured me that on the whole, the Beijing leadership is happy to let the SAR make its own way within our high degree of autonomy. Even during the controversial CFA referral, Beijing's much preferred option was for Hong Kong to settle the matter within the SAR. It's a pity that this was not constitutionally possible.
And as President Jiang made clear to our Chief Executive recently in Beijing, the leadership is content to leave it to the SAR to deal with the Falun Gong issue within the autonomy we enjoy under One Country Two Systems. Given the sensitive nature of this issue to Beijing, can we ask for more?
We must build upon the autonomy we have been granted under the Basic Law and which we have so far exercised so freely and flexibly. I do not suggest that we in any way ignore or stand out against the national interest. But the greatest national interest at stake in Hong Kong is in the success we achieve in demonstrating to the world in general - and our compatriots in Taiwan in particular - that One Country Two Systems is not just a political slogan, but a real and living dynamic that works in practice.
Central to that is for Beijing and the SARG to show that a high degree of autonomy means what it says, even occasionally at the expense of the SAR handling issues in a way that is distinctly different from the approach in the Mainland. Frankly, when this happens, it can only be to the credit of Beijing. In this regard, it seems to me that doubts held before the transition have lingered too long among some observers both locally and overseas who have not given the Chinese leadership sufficient credit for the light touch they have shown in handling Hong Kong since the Handover.
We will certainly need all the room to manoeuvre we can muster to face the challenges of the next few years. The fallout from the Asian financial crisis should have shattered any complacency we may have had that the world owes us a living. On the contrary, it demonstrated in stark terms that we need to reinforce the institutions of freedom and the open market policies which have underpinned our past success.
We must not give rise to any real fear that the rule of law is under threat; we cannot lower our guard against corruption - clean and accountable government means more to us than ever; we cannot afford to tilt the level playing field for business; we must do more to strengthen corporate governance; we must cut costs to improve our competitiveness; deepen reforms in the economy; stay ahead of the wave of change in technology; dramatically improve our quality of life; and do more to provide the cultural infrastructure and community mindset that Hong Kong is, at the end of the day, a great international city, and not just another city in China. Are these not the ingredients that give us the edge over our rivals in the region?
None of us should wear rose coloured glasses. We don't need economists' forecasts to tell us that we face stiff competition from Shanghai and other cities in the region over the next few decades. I have already set out a few moments ago some of the things we need to do, or continue to strengthen, if we are to meet those challenges. Hong Kong has not baulked at challenges in the past and we must have the self-confidence to meet them in the future.
That's what I meant when I spoke of mindset. I have become increasingly concerned since the Handover that too many Hong Kong people have become more inward looking. Understandably perhaps, they have looked towards the Mainland at the expense of our traditional links with the rest of the world. Some are so concerned about integration that they seem to forget that our strength lies in the separation which is fundamental to the success of One Country Two Systems - not just for Hong Kong, but for China as well. By contrast, I have watched with admiration as the Mainland has increased its outreach to the international community.
Take use and standard of English as one small but important example. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by foreign businessmen and visitors how much better they speak English in Shanghai or Beijing. How ironic it would be if the reunification of Hong Kong with China marked the point in history where the peoples of Hong Kong and the Mainland passed each other going in opposite directions. Our ability to communicate in the international language of business was one of the factors which always gave us an edge over our rivals. We blunt that edge at our peril.
In my own lifetime I have seen Hong Kong absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants fleeing the upheavals of civil war in China, my own family among them. I witnessed the bank run in 1965; the riots on our streets at the time of the Cultural Revolution; the 1970s recession caused by the oil crisis; the run on the HK dollar in 1983 which led to the link with the US dollar; the closure of the stock exchange during the crash of 1987; Tiananmen; the Vietnamese Boat People crisis; the various dramas of the 13-year transition; and the financial crisis which struck in 1997.
We have survived it all, and much more. And grown stronger and more politically mature as a community in the process. Of course we face new challenges. We always will. I have spent nearly 40 years in public life watching Hong Kong beating the odds. Writing off Hong Kong is like waving the proverbial red rag to the bull. I have no doubt that Hong Kong's indomitable spirit and optimism - supported and nurtured by sensitive and sensible government - will write yet another great chapter in our success story.
For myself, it is time to move on. I have had the good fortune to serve in a first class civil service for nearly 39 years. The Service has given me much more in terms of personal growth and fulfillment than I can ever hope to repay. My experiences and encounters have helped shape my character and life in ways I could not have imagined when I first joined the Service in 1962. In the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem "Ulysses" -
"I am a part of all that I have met
Tho' much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield."
I consider it a singular honour to have been involved in the historical watershed of 1997 and to have led the Civil Service for almost equal periods before and after the handover as the Chief Secretary - enough memories to last me a life-time. But my fondest memory will always be of my colleagues in the service - their support, friendship and team spirit. I leave them in Donald's very capable hands.
I have enjoyed almost every moment of my career. More importantly, I have at the same time enjoyed every moment of my life outside of work - my real life, if you like. Looking back over these past four decades, the two best decisions I ever made were joining the civil service and marrying Archie. Archie has been a loving and supportive husband and has so often provided the sanity and balance that I needed. We now have the pleasure of seeing our children and their spouses raise their own children - that is the circle of life.
To the people of Hong Kong, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you. Thank you for your forbearance, support and affection and for the wonderful memories you've given me. No public official could ask for more. I leave the Civil Service at peace with myself and with the world and I look forward to the next quieter phase of my life wherever it might lead me.
May God bless and keep Hong Kong and its Civil Service always.
End/ Thursday, April 19, 2001