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CS's speech at the 2006 Annual Fellowship Dinner of the Hong Kong Management Association (with photos)

    Following is the speech by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Rafael Hui, at the 2006 Annual Fellowship Dinner of the Hong Kong Management Association today (November 29):

David, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

     Good evening. I am delighted to join you tonight for the 2006 Annual Fellowship Dinner of the Hong Kong Management Association. The Association has a sterling history of promoting management excellence and continuing education in Hong Kong. Over the years, the HKMA has provided training to tens of thousands of working executives, contributing significantly to enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of management in Hong Kong. It is now one of our most enduring and venerable institutions, so I am truly honoured in having been invited to this occasion.

     Right at this moment and indeed 24 hours a day, there are two things hard at work that you probably do not think much about: one is your heart, and the other is Hong Kong's civil service. Without either one, we cannot function. Yet, in both cases, when they are working properly, we hardly notice them.

     You will recall the serious hill fire that broke out in Tai Lam Country Park earlier this month. You would have read about the fortitude and persistence of the firefighters, Government Flying Service officers, park workers and volunteers who toiled around the clock to prevent the blaze from spreading to residential areas. The fire has wiped out tens of thousands of trees that had given pleasure to countless hikers and other lovers of nature, trees that many might have thought were part of our natural environment, trees that just grew there by themselves.

     But there's more to the story. Those trees actually were planted 30 years ago by staff of the then Agriculture and Fisheries Department. One department officer, a Mr Chan, recalled how he and his colleagues had hauled heavy baskets of tree seedlings up the hills, and then painstakingly planted them, one by one, on the slopes of Tai Lam Country Park. Over the decades, these Hong Kong civil servants had dedicated themselves to nurturing those trees. They took pride in watching them grow, seeing them provide enjoyment to our country park users. Suddenly, in a matter of 51 hours, 65,000 of those trees were destroyed.

     Now Mr Chan and his colleagues will have to start all over again. It is their job as civil servants. Every day, civil servants like Mr Chan put in hours of hard work behind the scenes.  Work that most of us barely think about in our daily routines. Work that we take for granted.

     You have no doubt read newspaper articles about individual civil servants shirking their duties or misconducting themselves at work. The media are right to highlight these cases as they play an important role of a public watchdog. Now, it goes without saying that if any civil servant is found malingering or cutting corners, he or she is dealt with severely. The Administration is resolute in dealing with any case of misconduct.

     But the negative story from time to time should not overshadow all the positive things that our civil servants do, and the top-notch services that they offer, day in and day out. We all recognise the high standards of our disciplined services. And there are many others in lower-profile jobs in other parts of the Government, who quietly carry out their duties to help make our lives easier.

     Allow me to give one or two more examples. We are well aware of the work done by the Police and ambulance men after motor vehicle accidents, as well as the hospital emergency staff who care for the injured. Beyond that, we probably don't think there is much more than that. But did you know there was still much to be done? After the Police and emergency crews have finished, the work is handed to the forensic scientists at the Transport Department. You could think of them as the CSIs (crime scene investigators) of motor vehicles. They can be called out at any time of the day or night, in all kinds of weather, to the scene of a traffic accident to inspect the vehicles involved. After the examination, they have to present their findings professionally and impartially. In court, they may face tough challenges from lawyers and other experts. This is only one part of their wider duties, yet they shrug off the stress and carry on with diligence and dedication.

     For those of you who travel regularly to other parts of the world for work or pleasure, you may not be aware of the length to which some of our civil servants go in ensuring that you have a safe and pleasant journey in and out of our airport. Meteorological information, particularly wind data over the runways, is very important for the smooth landing and take-off of aircrafts. The Hong Kong Observatory has specialist mechanics who are tasked, among other things, to maintain the wind measurement stations along the runway. The mechanic has to work in squally rain or harsh sunshine, to dash back to the airport in the middle of the night to fix failed equipment, and to remain at the airport for long hours when winds are roaring at the height of a typhoon onslaught.

     If I had the time, I could cite hundreds more examples, from the dramatic to the mundane, of Hong Kong civil servants going the extra mile in their discharge of duties in so many different fields, without public knowledge or recognition. Nor is that all. Many civil servants, when off-duty, continue to serve the community. Again, just by way of illustration, two off-duty ambulance men were commended after they encountered horrendous road accidents and jumped into the fray to save passengers' lives. Less dramatically, do you know that the Fire Services Department has a volunteer unit to help fire victims renovate their homes? Making use of corporate and personal donations, these volunteers help the elderly, the handicapped and those in financial difficulty put their lives back together after the trauma of losing everything in a fire.

     My purpose in citing these examples is to give you pause for thought. For those in search of a whipping boy, the civil service is a convenient target. But before we offer up the knee-jerk reaction that the civil service is wasting our tax dollars, spare a thought for the tens of thousands of ordinary Hong Kong people who make up the government ranks and provide the rest of us with more than value for money service.

     Simply put, Hong Kong's civil service is one of the best in the world. There is an abundance of objective, empirical evidence to support this assertion. For example, Hong Kong continues to rank first in terms of government efficiency, according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook issued by the International Institute for Management Development. The United Nations International Crime Victim Survey named Hong Kong "One of the safest cities in the world". Our civil service has won recognition and awards over the years. The  innovative "Policing Disease" system of the Department of Health and the Police Force for tracking SARS carriers won a Stockholm Challenge Award in 2004. Our Smart Identity Card System won a Card Technology Breakthrough Award.

     In the past few years, we have reduced the size of the civil service from over 190,000 to about 160,000, while maintaining or increasing the quantity and improving the quality of services provided. Back-office operations have been streamlined for better efficiency. The public now has more convenient electronic access to government services. Working closely with the business community, government departments are continuously streamlining the process for setting up and running businesses in Hong Kong. The Immigration Department has made acquiring a new identity card a simple and speedy process, while lengthy queues at border checkpoints are now a distant memory for permanent ID card holders. Those of us who travel regularly and have experienced what it takes to go through immigration and customs in some other parts of the world, have come to appreciate the standard and quality of service delivered by our dedicated Immigration and Customs officers.

     But we need to go further. There are clear demands from the community for the Government to be more responsive to their needs and be more transparent. The recent incidents over food safety are cases in point. The public expect the Government to act swiftly and at the same time, keep them fully in the picture. Over the years, we have done a lot in improving our food safety regime. But I do accept that there are still gaps in the present system and that there is always room for us to do better. We must therefore continue to take proactive action to identify how we can better serve our community.

     Back in 1829, the American statesman Henry Clay said: "Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees. And both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people." That applies as much to Hong Kong in 2006 as it did to the US in 1829. When I speak in praise of civil servants, it is not only those at the front line. Behind them are senior officials who, like many of you, manage and keep our services running smoothly, as well as chart policies for our future. These senior and professional staff also are dedicated to serve for "the benefit of the people". Unlike, for instance, politicians, who necessarily have one eye on the next election, or business people and other sectoral groups who focus more on their own sphere of interests, our senior civil servants must take a broader view of Hong Kong's long-term interests.

     Often working under intense pressure, they are committed to the long-term development of Hong Kong. They provide the stability and continuity in Hong Kong's governance. To quote from the handbook for senior civil servants : "Ensuring that Hong Kong is run by a clean administration buttressed by the rule of law is the only way to harness the trust and confidence of the public and the international business community." I believe they are successful. Among all of Hong Kong's institutions, public faith in the integrity and efficiency of the civil service remains very high.  

     Operating an effective and sustainable civil service is far from just cutting costs. Nor is it simply about adding new services. After all, the civil service is not the private sector, with its commitment to growth, market share, and profits. In the public sector, the focus has to be not only "doing things right" but also "doing the right things".

     At a time when it seems the world is increasingly full of populists, self-styled visionaries and single-interest activists, it is all the more vital to treasure the role played by senior civil servants. They are professionally dedicated to assess impartially the balance of conflicting interests, both short- and long-term, the consistency of all policies, and the options that are within the realm of reality, be they technical, social, financial, political, legal or constitutional. Without this all-important function, good governance is impossible.

     Our civil service, senior, middle management and front line, is collectively a fine piece of machinery that has been honed and developed for almost a century. This is a system that is robust yet adaptable, complex yet responsive. It has evolved with changing circumstances and has repeatedly weathered pressures and challenges. Ladies and gentlemen, in time, under the provisions of the Basic Law, we are going to have universal suffrage. I hope at least some of you here tonight have some political aspirations to public office, even high public office. As and when the time comes for you to actually take the wheel in the driving seat, I have one piece of advice. Ask yourself how well do you understand and appreciate the civil service, its strengths and weaknesses, its values, its functions, its system of rewards and punishment. Press the right buttons, the machine will perform smoothly and effectively. Press the wrong buttons, a great disservice will be done to this community. Do take time to ponder on exactly how, through the civil service, you are going to convert your election promises into reality.

Ends/Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Issued at HKT 20:35


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