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SEM's speech on accountability system


Following is the speech by Secretary for Education and Manpower, Professor Arthur K C Li, on the "Personal Perspective of the Accountability System" at the luncheon talk for the Foreign Correspondents' Club today (May 9): (English only)

I am very honoured today to have the opportunity to discuss the topic of the Accountability System, particularly to an outspoken perhaps sceptical audience with pretty strong views. You know that controversy only exists when people who disagree with you are utterly wrong. Today I hope to appeal to your rationality so that you can come to appreciate a system that is not static but will continue to evolve for the betterment of Hong Kong.

First of all, I must share with you my perception of the Accountability System as an outsider before I joined the Government. I have never regarded myself as a politician, particularly as it has been said that a politician has a great regard for himself, little regard for others and no regard for the truth! I must also stress that I was no more interested in politics than the average Hong Kong citizen and our impression of the Accountability System was gained entirely from the mass media.

From general perception, Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, now European Commissioner for External Affairs and Chancellor of Newcastle and Oxford Universities is a superb politician. Not only had he the complete backing of John Major, the Prime Minister, despite uneasiness of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he knew how to manipulate the feelings, aspirations and worries of the people of Hong Kong.

Chris Patten obviously and understandably put the interest of the United Kingdom first and foremost, followed closely by the interest of Chris Patten himself. After all, he is a very distinguished politician.

I believe Chris Patten set out to manage a dignified retreat of the United Kingdom from Hong Kong so that whatever might happen here after the return of sovereignty, Britain could not be blamed for anything. Moreover, if he could come out with international credit, so much the better.

During his governorship of 5 years, regardless of subsequent consequences, he committed the Hong Kong Government to increase expenditure in health, welfare and infrastructural projects. Furthermore, he brought in his version of democratisation without any regard or prior discussion with China. All these ensured that he could appease the local population with benefits and at the same time became the international crusader against communism and defender of democracy. Over the course of his tenure, increasingly he spent more time to promote his image in the international arena than in the day to day affairs of Hong Kong in which he was not particularly interested. I was once amazed that near the end of his time here in Hong Kong, he had no idea of how many universities there were in Hong Kong despite the fact that he was Chancellor of them all. He probably spent more time travelling outside Hong Kong than all his predecessors put together.

During that period, the actual running of Hong Kong was left entirely to the civil service which inevitably would lead to a rapid and continual expansion within its ranks. The increase of civil servants was not a problem because they were then regarded as highly competent and dedicated. The more the merrier; the more the better. After all, Hong Kong was in an expansive mood. Incidentally, these are the same civil servants since the changeover. In the past few years, despite the cut back in the number of civil servants, the services to the public have not suffered.

Once the change of sovereignty had taken place and Mr Tung took command, inevitably the new man would have a different style and different outlook. This is no different from previous changes of Governorships from Trench to MacLehose, from MacLehose to Youde or from Youde to Wilson.

During the first term of Mr Tung, the public through the media perceived that there was tension between the civil service and the new Chief Executive. Presumably the civil service was previously de facto running Hong Kong, while now you have a Chief Executive more interested in the local affairs than self-promotion in the international scene. Despite all the criticisms levelled at Mr Tung these past years, no one has ever questioned his sincerity or integrity in working for the good of Hong Kong.

With any government in the world, there are bound to be issues of controversy. Under such circumstances, any policy hiccup would be blamed by some on the intransigence of the civil service, the unco-operative attitude of the civil servants and even personal ambitions of some to undermine the authority of the Chief Executive. On the other hand, there were grumblings of unclear directives, indecisions and lack of strategic planning. Rightly or wrongly, as a member of the public, one would never know the actual truth. However, the overall public impression was that the whole Government was in a bit of mess. The credibility and authority of the whole Government have severely suffered and a distinct lack of confidence in its ability has set in.

For some who disagree with the method of selection of the Chief Executive, this was golden opportunity to exploit the situation and attack Mr Tung.

Two years ago when Mr Tung first announced his Accountability System, the public viewed this as a lack of trust in the civil service and that Mr Tung wanted to put his own people in charge.

In fact there is nothing unusual or wrong for the head of a government to put in people of his choice. The American administration has a complete changeover every time a new President is installed. In the British system, new mininsters take over after each parliamentary term with cabinet reshuffles in between.

However, in the Hong Kong context, without a mature political party system, it was a bold but dangerous decision to take. If Mr Tung re-appointed all the senior civil servants to head his bureaux, then the public would perceive that there was no change whatsoever, so why bother? However, if that had happened, there would still have been a fundamental change because these new heads of bureaux would no longer be politically neutral civil servants but totally accountable to the Chief Executive who appointed them.

If on the other hand, Mr Tung replaced all the senior civil servants with his own appointees, then instead of having a one-man show for the whole government, each of his own appointees would in turn become a one-man show within his bureau. The perceived problem of the Government would merely be translated one layer further down. Moreover, these new appointees would have no knowledge or experience of government and friction would inevitably result. For instance, the argument could be between the traditional approach of the civil service in doing things and modern business practices.

I must admit that I paid very little attention to the formation of the Accountability System. Being rebellious by nature and outspoken as an academic, I felt that this Accountability System would have major impact on the credibility of the whole Government which ultimately would impact upon the governability of Hong Kong. That is why I referred earlier to this as a dangerous decision. There is no doubt that some people wish to exploit this new situation, to attack the Accountability System so as to sustain the attack on Mr Tung and discredit the current system of governance of Hong Kong and hopefully to usher in a different electoral process. However, I must admit that I thought no more about it at that time.

Last year in February, I was invited to meet Mr Tung to discuss educational issues. I was not surprised that no one else was present because he liked to privately hear different views from time to time. However, I was surprised when Mr Tung offered me the portfolio of Education.

Education has been very much Mr Tung¡¦s stated passion. He has publicly stated that he wanted history to remember him for 2 things; the smooth transition of the change of sovereignty that is the successful implementation of one country two systems and the success of his educational policy. Since Mr Tung took office, he has invested enormous amount of resources for education. The current budget for education is nearly 24% of the whole government expenditure. It is interesting to note that Mr Tung chose education as a key platform of his administration. After all, we know that the success of any education policy will take years to materialize. I believe Mr Tung was not looking for short-term gain but conscientiously laying a sound foundation for Hong Kong in the years to come.

For myself, when confronted with such an offer, there were a number of issues to resolve.

First and foremost, was I the best candidate for the post and would I be able to do a good and effective job? After all, I have no experience of government.

Second, by taking up the post, would I then block a capable senior civil servant from advancement? After all, I was very happy as Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. By my changing of jobs, would we have made two very happy people unhappy at one stroke? At that time, I did not realise that I had to face three pay cuts in six months!

Third, what would be the reaction of the civil service to have an outsider and critic in their midst? After all, we know that civil servants are highly trained, highly able and when roused perhaps highly devious?

Finally, after analysing the situation and weighing up the likely consequences, I gave my affirmative reply to the Chief Executive last year in May. What really made up my mind was the sincerity of Mr Tung and his undoubted commitment to education. He is a good man and Hong Kong needs to support good people who are dedicated to Hong Kong.

Mr Tung was prepared to go out into the community to look for people who could share his vision and support him in the implementation of his policies. He was being inclusive which is vital to the development of Hong Kong. He was not looking for sycophants but constructive critics whom he could build into a team. For a committed educationist like myself, it was really an irrefusable challenge. Instead of merely criticizing the government, one was able to do something from the inside.

Although prepared for the worse, once in government a number of very pleasant surprises awaited me.

First and foremost, the civil servants, with whom I came into contact, were not a bunch of grossly overpaid underworked bureaucrats who had sloping shoulders and shirked responsibilities. In fact, they are highly intelligent and committed people who like myself greatly care about Hong Kong. Despite the many frustrations they face, they are extremely professional. Sometimes I wish that they could trade a bit of efficiency for a more human touch.

The second thing that struck me at EMB was that the policies that have been pursued, once analysed again, are correct but the problem often lies with implementation. Despite all the criticisms of language standards and education reforms, the direction and goals are what Hong Kong needs. It was easy to take ownership of these policies and sell it to the public. Civil servants have never been trained to be salespeople but should focus on the proper implementation of the policies. Therefore, we need to delayer the civil service to make it more efficient and that led to the merger of the Department of Education and the EMB.

In order for our policies to be effective and acceptable, we need to change the culture of our society so that our citizens feel inclusive rather than exclusive. For instance, that is the reason why we brought in the Bill for school-based management. However, with any new initiative, invariably there will be objections. Although one must try to address the worries and anxieties of change, nevertheless ultimately we must do what is right for the whole community.

We must also change the culture of dependency to one of participation and ownership. To do that, we have to engage the public early. That is why to some people I have been shooting my mouth ¡V sometimes to engage in debate, like university mergers and at other times to float unpalatable suggestions to achieve other objectives like ESF funding.

In the old system, I do not think or expect any sensible right- minded civil service head would behave in such a way. Obviously, we will have to wait and see the success and effectiveness of these new tactics under the Accountability System. However, in the end, all results will only be relative.

With the Accountability System, we all have to adapt to changes. Different people will have different perception of what it should be. The system itself will change and continue to change. We have merely taken the first step.

At the moment, some people criticize the principal officials in the Accountability System because we are unelected. The very fact that we are unelected actually provides us with a marvellous opportunity to get things right for Hong Kong without worrying too much about our own popularity.

The essence of the Accountability System is that it can allow outsiders the opportunity to join the government at a senior level, not merely to give advice but to formulate policies, to implement policies and to be responsible for those policies. It provides a stability in the form of a Government party. No doubt it will need time to evolve and mature. No doubt it will be good for Hong Kong.

End/Friday, May 9, 2003


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