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Speech by Commissioner of Customs and Excise


Following is the full text of speech by the Commissioner of Customs and Excise, Mr John Tsang Chun-wah, at the luncheon hosted by the Zonta Club Hong Kong East today (June 14):


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be here today to share with you my experience in managing the Hong Kong Customs.


You may recall that my appointment as Commissioner in March 1999 was met initially with a generous dosage of skepticism, if not a fair bit of resistance from the departmental staff. Many service members could not accept that a civilian, who knew nothing about customs operations, could possibly lead them. I did not admit it then, but looking back, they were at least two-thirds correct in that assumption. I was a civilian and I knew nothing about customs operations, but I was determined to lead them.

My goal was to build on the existing efficiency and effectiveness of the Department and develop further the foundations of a modern Customs Service. In the process, I wish to demonstrate also that active management, though generic in nature, could serve to enhance the performance of a specialist department.

I knew I had to establish from the start a shared vision that would help build unity of purpose among the staff, and employ modus operandi that are capable of reaping results in the face of rising expectations from the public, the business community and our trading partners. The idea of becoming an intelligence-led organisation emerged quickly and prominently, and we converged our focus on this enterprising concept.

This line of thinking carries significant ramifications, not only for traditional enforcement matters, but also for issues concerning business facilitation, customs co-operation and organisational well being. In kick-starting our new mission, we were fortunate enough in producing desirable results in a short time, and the positive momentum generated, which translated into heightened morale and a reformed identity, helped carry us forward smoothly under the new paradigm.

Before I get into the features of my management paradigm, I would like to share with you some of the result-oriented initiatives that we have been able to implement in the past two years.


I shall begin with a few examples of the measures that we have taken in fortifying our traditional role as a law enforcement agency. We have set up a Special Task Force to crush retail piracy. We have expanded our Narcotics Dogs Unit to enhance our drug detection capability. We have set up a new Control Points Investigation Division to strengthen our interdiction and intelligence capabilities in suppressing cross-boundary smuggling and trafficking activities. We have set up a Textiles Task Force to conduct checks at land boundary control points and public cargo working areas to combat illegal textiles transshipment activities. We have set up an Anti-Internet Piracy Team to deal with issues arising from internet use.

On the trade facilitation front, we are developing a number of Electronic Data Interchange projects to facilitate the transmission of permits and manifests. We are upgrading the Air Cargo Clearance System to enhance the already efficient processing of the large volume of air cargo at the airport. We are implementing the 51 recommendations identified in a Helping Business Consultancy Study to enhance our services in an open and business-friendly environment for traders. We are completing a pilot study on an open bond system for dutiable commodities to reduce cost and increase operational efficiency for traders.

In terms of customs co-operation, we have stepped up relationship with our trading partners resulting in greater communication and understanding. We have enhanced our profile in the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation as well as the World Customs Organisation. Our election as Vice-Chairman of the World Customs Organisation in July last year bears witnesses to our strong international standing in the customs community.

Organisationally, we have sought to strengthen our internal structure through a root-and-branch review which provided us with useful recommendations to meet more aptly changing priorities and new demands. We have made training a high priority item in our Department. We have developed a business plan for information technology in the Department to serve as our blueprint for development in the coming years. We have pledged our commitment to maintaining a customs service of the highest integrity, and developed a "Code on Conduct and Discipline" unique to our operations for compliance by all staff.


We have, indeed, achieved a great deal in the past two years. The principal credit must go to the front line staff for their precise execution, the middle management for their meticulous supervision, as well as the senior directorate for their ingenious policy formulation. As the head of department, I have taken the role of facilitator building a proper environment to nurture creative, constructive and co-operative behaviour within the Department.

In formulating my overall strategy, I have abided by an eclectic collection of principles under the umbrella of the "SUPPORT" model. Each one of the seven letters in the acronym "S-U-P-P-O-R-T" stands for a descriptive word which represents an essential feature in my management paradigm.


The first letter "S" stands for stimulating. Recognising the wealth of knowledge and professionalism of my staff in their respective areas of work, I have sought to institute throughout the organisation a stimulating environment where staff of all levels are encouraged to discuss issues frankly, to share their experiences and to contribute to the formulation of new strategies and initiatives. There is an abundance of valuable ideas out there among the staff, and with the proper encouragement, we have been able to bring out the best our people can offer.

In propagating some of these great ideas identified by staff, I have assisted in simplifying the presentation and generating enthusiasm for their institutionalisation. I have sought to cut through the web of details and offer solutions and strategies in forms that everyone can understand. I have also sought to downplay cynicism and pessimism that have been generated with every new idea. I played up instead optimism and enthusiasm. These are powerful characteristics which are capable of rippling out to the operational levels, motivating everyone with a sense of energy and mission.

There have been concerns that in so doing we might not be presenting the full picture, and that we might be neglecting the full array of debates and possibilities, and giving the staff unrealistic expectations. That might be so, and we need to manage that somehow. What is more important, however, is that we are now able to rally everyone concerned around simple concepts that are easy to identify with and easy to relate to.


The second letter in the acronym "U" stands for understanding. The stimulating architecture we have installed would not function without the adoption of an understanding attitude throughout the Department. We need to ensure that the proper attitude permeates to every level of management.

It is my priority to understand my staff and to appreciate their difficulties. Through regular meetings and interviews with them at different levels and settings, as well as through regular visits to remote offices, I have been able to internalize the essence of the emerging issues that require attention. At the same time, I have been able to keep track of the performance of my key assistants to make sure that matters are progressing well. This helps to raise staff morale and in turn effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation.

Conversely, when operational hiccups do crop up from time to time, I can put my fingers on the problems right away. Instead of putting the blame on the staff indiscriminately, I can make the proper judgement, giving full appreciation to the difficulties that the staff might face, and offer my advice in a fair and constructive manner. It is my firm belief that a harmonious working relationship through the adoption of an understanding attitude by supervisors at all levels will, as the Chinese saying goes, "yield twice the result with half the effort".


The letter "P" stands for pragmatic. There are different types of leaders and they seek to achieve their goals and missions in different ways. Some are control freaks and they have their peculiar ways. Others couldn't care less, and they, too, have their ways. I tend to take on a pragmatic approach based principally on results. It suits me well because I am not a perfectionist, and in dealing with most issues, I do not try to reach 100 per cent certainty before I slamdunk my decision.

I know that it is important to be prudent and to guard against recklessness, but I know that decision making with complete information is fantasy in public administration. We need to be pragmatic and take the necessary risks. We have to take the percentage shots according to our best judgement, and sometimes gut feelings. After all, what matters in the end is whether the problems get fixed.

Instead of dwelling on excessively in analysing in great detail all possible solutions, I have resorted to making decisions within a reasonable time frame based on pragmatic considerations. In the case of Customs, pragmatic considerations include the professional advice of my staff, the views of concerned bodies, the available resources at hand and the cost of getting the decision wrong. We have been fortunate so far in maintaining a fairly good record of getting our decisions right.


The second "P" stands for PR-minded. In our media-driven society, the packaging of our organisation and our achievements are very important in conveying our key messages. We have instilled in our staff a strong PR-minded sense of being accountable to the public through the media.

In Customs, we have adopted an active PR strategy of publicising our work through the media. The exercise is not intended to pat ourselves constantly on the back, but to alert the public of the key issues affecting them and the possible infringements that they might commit if they do not comply with the relevant provisions.

My staff are now so used to educating the public through publicizing their work that press interviews, briefings and conferences have become a routine part of their day. Last year, we issued 590 press releases, arranged a total of 79 extensive interviews and held 154 press conferences and briefings. We had to expand the original one-man Information Unit to a team of three professionals in order to cope with the increased demand.

Our PR efforts extend beyond the media to our clients directly. We keep regular contact with the industry through a number of Customer Liaison Groups. We organise talks and briefings for traders whenever the need arises. We distribute information booklets to the public to enhance their understanding of the roles of Customs. We also attach great importance to our hotline service to encourage the public to make direct enquiries to us and to report crimes relating to offences enforced by Customs.


The letter "O" stands for ownership-driven. Ownership by all concerned is paramount in driving forward a successful organisation. I encourage full delegation of authority, and I follow the principle that my operational commanders are always right unless proven otherwise. I encourage them to formulate proper strategies outside a realist's cell of self-imposed limitations. I would find them the necessary resources for implementation of new priorities. I would empower them to do their jobs properly, but I would not hesitate to challenge these professionals in their own backyard with my "why not" questions. This constant mental dialogue helps to broaden their perspective and allay their historical burdens.

I would pay due recognition to the achievements of my staff, and I firmly believe that those responsible should take full credit for their own successes. I make sure that they understand that they also bear full responsibility if things go wrong as a result of their negligence.

Being ownership-driven, responsible officers will identify themselves with the subjects for which they are responsible. They become accountable to their own successes or failures, resulting in an even higher degree of responsibility among the staff.

This individual ownership mode, in aggregate terms, becomes collective ownership by the entire Department with all the achievements made by different individuals. After all, it is team-work that brings about these successes, and no single person can really claim credit for all the achievements of an organisation.


The "R" stands for responsible. As the head of an organisation, I remind myself not just to share the successes of my organisation, but also to have the courage to shoulder the failures as well.

I seek to learn the strengths and weaknesses of my key assistants and deploy them usefully to maximise their collective potential. I seek to acquaint myself fully with their work in order to be able to give them useful guidance and direction. I also let them know, and make them feel assured, that I am fully behind their action, and I will take full responsibility for anything that might go wrong on an organisation level.

As a responsible leader, I have chosen to face all the issues. I would not sweep anything under the rug. I would even look deep into all the hidden crevices, past and present, and try to deal with all the problems fairly and honourably.


The last letter "T" stands for transparent. I go for as much transparency as possible so that my staff will know in advance what is being planned for the organisation. A transparent management approach can take many forms with the most obvious, and probably the most useful, being in the form of consultations.

For plans which will affect our staff, the management would make them known at the earliest possible stage to permit extensive participation before final decisions are made. We would hold seminars to gauge staff opinions on specific subjects. We have regular staff meetings at all working levels where exchanges of views take place and where briefings on new developments and updates on the progress of specific items are arranged.

I would take the initiative to get in touch with staff of all levels to identify their concerns, issues affecting our operation and ideas to do things better. We would seek to reduce barriers to communication so that lower-ranking officers could bring us their problems directly. It is a sign of confidence if they would share with us their discontent. It is even better if we can help them and show them that we care.


Since all of you are senior managers in your respective organisations, you would find all the "S-U-P-P-O-R-T" features quite familiar. I am sure that you have employed these features in your daily management. There is no magic to running an organization. It is all about interpersonal relations.

As managers in a leading services centre, management is our forte, but sometimes we still need to repeat the most obvious and mundane principles just to remind ourselves how we should deal with the issues at hand. I hope the example of the management paradigm of the Hong Kong Customs has served to bring together some of the essential principles that are useful in the management of your organisations.

Thank you.

End/Thursday, June 14, 2001


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