Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Carrie Lam has squandered her good start as Hong Kong chief executive with recent missteps

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Alice Wu says the chief executive began well in office but her refusal to mediate between opposing camps in the legislature and her defence of Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng have betrayed Hong Kong people’s hopes

It has been reported that Huang Lanfa, a deputy director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, has praised Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for having got off to a good start since taking office.

Well, technically, Lam did have a good start. She began her term with a pretty high rating, as the public was euphoric over the end of Leung Chun-ying’s reign. She pulled off a few clever political manoeuvres as the chief executive-elect: her courtesy visits to Beijing’s liaison office, the office of the foreign ministry and the People’s Liberation Army garrison were delicately handled and clearly signalled that she intended to do things differently.

On her first day, she allocated HK$5 billion to education – a smart move as no one would object to more resources for that sector. It’s up there with “kiss the baby” in terms of political sure-wins.

And so Hong Kong did feel tentatively renewed. Reaching across the political aisle to get the support of the opposition and ticking an election pledge off her list in her first week of office was indeed a good start. At the time, the public held out some hope for Lam’s ability to “heal the social divide”.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. Being insensitive to the Rohingya crisis and making her first trip to Myanmar to talk business made Hong Kong look bad. Refusing to mediate between rival camps in the legislature over proposed changes to their rule book made Lam herself look bad. It exposed her unwillingness to mend divides. So her comments on “improving the executive-legislative relationship” as “the first thing the government will be working on” were just talk. When the opportunity presented itself to play the role, she passed.

The latest controversy over Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng-wah is now way out of hand. I’m glad that Lam has found a BFF in Cheng, so much so that Lam has repeatedly stuck her neck out for Cheng over the illegal structures in her homes. When the secretary for justice breaks the law, it is not tolerance, which Lam aggravatingly keeps asking the people for, that we need. What the public needs is to know that officials will do the right thing. Cheng, along with Lam, failed miserably. Cheng can chalk it up to her political inexperience, but what’s Lam’s excuse?

Lam feels she can relate to Cheng when it comes to “being too busy to handle private affairs”. But as chief executive, her priority – and the theme of her entire election campaign – is to “connect”, relate to the common folk, and not the privileged few who think that breaking the law should be tolerated.

With her “tolerance” for illegal structures, Lam has not only compromised her own integrity, but also the trust – the little there was to begin with – people have in the government and her relationship with her “friends” in the legislature. There is no doubt that Cheng is manna from political heaven for the opposition, and they will ride the abomination that Cheng has managed to become in just weeks for all it’s worth.

How quickly this city’s first female chief executive reverted back to her lead-tainted water buck-passing bureaucratic self. How fast this government has degenerated into one that cares not for personal failures. How quickly Lam has gone back on her words on easing social frustrations. Nothing is more infuriating than being talked down to in brazen bureaucratese.

The pro-establishment camp better start evaluating how much of a political liability Lam poses for it. Lam certainly isn’t looking out for them.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA


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If Singapore can groom political talent for good governance, why can’t Hong Kong?

CommentInsight & Opinion
Gary Wong Chi-him says that if Carrie Lam wants more effective governance in Hong Kong, she should look to Singapore’s political cultivation process, not its civil service training

During her maiden official trip to Singapore, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor visited the country’s Civil Service College, admitting that it was her second attempt to learn from the vision of the local academy. In the face of new global challenges, professional training for public servants is important, but the Singapore government’s great foresight is not merely the result of a civil service training facility. Rather, its rigorous system in recruitment and development of political talent is key.

Lee Kuan Yew, founding prime minister of Singapore, once stated that the key to the country’s success was “the best and brightest doing the most outstanding jobs”, meaning political talent doing political work.

One must overcome many hurdles to represent the People’s Action Party in Singapore’s general elections. According to Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party, candidates must complete an IQ exam, psychological test with more than 1,000 questions and two face-to-face interviews for clinical assessment. Doctors examine childhood and family life, educational background, experience with national service, sex psychology history, marriage habits, social activities, health, work experience, finances, life philosophy and political motivation. However, past performance in grass-roots work is given higher priority than the psychological test. In the past, Lee Kwan Yew disapproved of some outstanding civil servants due to their lack of ability to work with grass-roots communities and labour unions.

Singapore strongly believes that dealing with low-income groups is the starting point of political training. Political newcomers must begin working in the grass-roots community and climb up step by step. After winning in the general elections and building a solid power base, they may finally enter the government to serve as cabinet ministers or in other high-level leadership positions.

In Singapore, members of Parliament, including the cabinet ministers, meet the residents of their constituencies every week – a programme known as a “meet-the-people session”. I have attended one such session, which began at 7pm and officially ended at midnight. Since there is no specific closing time, the MPs met all the residents who came for help.

Singapore highly values nurturing successors in political leadership. Early in the 1980s, Lee Kwan Yew began talent-hunting across the nation for people in their 30s and early 40s, with academic brilliance and distinguished careers, to join the political arena.

During each general election, the PAP requests a third of its MPs give up their seats for new candidates. Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong believes this turnover rate allows each MP to serve an average of three terms, or about 15 years. In Singapore, if one begins a political career at 37, he or she would only be around 50 on completing 15 years of public service. Singapore emphasises recruiting talent from outside the establishment. Lee Kwan Yew did not want to see a situation where cabinet members hold similar views, leading to “ideological inbreeding”. Currently, the PAP actively recruits talent from think tanks, religious groups, business corporations, community organisations and other fields. Those with political talent are encouraged to have different ideologies, but must agree on core values, handle problems logically and share the goal of solving political problems.

Beyond providing training for civil servants, perhaps Hong Kong more urgently needs a structure for developing political talent. Hong Kong’s chief executive often faces difficulties in forging an effective cabinet, final appointees rarely share a common vision, and the poor organisation process leads to public criticism. Moreover, most appointed officials have no experience in grass-roots politics and elections.

Discussions of Singapore’s political talent system are not intended to encourage Hong Kong to replicate Singapore’s model, but to caution the government to deepen their examination into effective strategies that better discover, nurture and sustain talent in public service. After all, good governance cannot depend on capable public servants – it requires excellent political leaders.

Gary Wong Chi-him is governor of the Path of Democracy

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On life support: Doctors’ pay a ticking time bomb for Hong Kong’s ailing public health system

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Albert Cheng

Albert Cheng says unless the government injects more funding, and salaries are pegged to the civil service, the recent rise has simply stalled more inevitable protests

The Hospital Authority last month averted a crisis with its senior doctors by granting them an additional three per cent salary rise out of its own pocket. However, that offer does not mean the two sides are no longer set on a collision course.

The treasury allocated HK$49 billion to the authority in the current budget to cover staff remuneration and annual adjustments. However, the doctors were angry when management decided not to match pay hikes for senior civil servants.

The civil service has been conducting reviews to see whether its employees’ packages are in line with the private sector. Based on its 2013 pay-level survey report, the government gave senior officials an additional three per cent. Such pay adjustments, every six years, are on top of any annual rises.

The Hospital Authority had insisted it was not obliged to follow the government but caved in after some 1,300 doctors staged a sit-in on its doorstep. The extra rise will cost it an additional HK$200 million a year, which, given the authority’s current balance sheet, hardly seems sustainable.

The government is adamant it will not foot the bill. So, in the long run, the authority would have to reduce other expenses to bridge the funding gap. That would inevitably hit services. We cannot let this happen; the government must absorb the extra cost.

Established in 1990, the authority has had at least three major run-ins over pay with disgruntled medical staff over the past 25 years.

Public-sector doctors can be divided into three broad categories. The department of medical and health was split into two divisions in 1989 to pave the way for the Hospital Authority’s takeover of all public hospitals. Some doctors under the then hospital services department migrated to the authority on existing civil service terms. Others took up cash and retirement incentives to give up their civil servant status. The third group was recruited after a new system was introduced in 1999. It is these doctors who have been treated most unfairly.

In theory, the authority’s remuneration system is separate from that of the government. There is, however, an unspoken consensus between the authority and its employees that terms and conditions should be in line with civil servants’.

In 2000, the authority followed the government to slash the salaries of newcomers. It also sought to reform doctors’ pay structure by reducing the three grades of public sector doctors to two. As a result, doctors doing the same jobs might be paid differently. But management back-pedalled after 5,000 doctors protested at its headquarters.

There was another stand-off in 2007, after the government restored the starting point for civil servants to the 2000 level. The authority failed to convince its staff of a similar plan. Some 1,300 doctors mounted a sit-in at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, pushing the authority into making concessions.

Eight years later, the doctors took action once more. This time bomb will continue to tick until the government agrees to re-peg public hospitals’ pay adjustments to those of the general civil service.

As an increasing number of disgruntled public doctors move to the private sector, public hospitals’ standards will decline. The recent list of medical incidents and mishaps is hardly accidental.

Two immediate steps should be taken to restore doctors’ morale and confidence, to stem the exodus. First, their pay adjustments should at least be on a par with civil servants’. Their promotion prospects should be improved and incentives introduced to retain the best. Second, more overseas practitioners should be allowed in, as long as locals’ interests are not compromised.

Our public medical service is on a slippery slope; it may only be a matter of time before we are faced with third-world standards.

The government does not have a comprehensive plan to tackle these issues. Its primary concern is to cut costs. We cannot afford our public medical system to become another failure of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

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Hong Kong government should stop outsourcing its low-paying jobs

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Paul Yip

Paul Yip says the government’s outsourcing of low-paying jobs comes at the expense of workers’ welfare

The rationale of outsourcing public services is to cut costs and maintain a small but efficient government that can focus on core business functions. It can be an effective cost-saving strategy when used properly.

The Hong Kong government has been outsourcing many services since 2001. Last year, there were nearly 60,000 contracted workers in various government departments. Among those, the Housing Department, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department account for nearly 90 per cent of the contracted workers being employed.

Most of these people are in low-skilled and low-paid work, such as the security guards, cleaners and service workers.

Leo Goodstadt, the former chief of the Central Policy Unit under the colonial government, suggested in his book, Poverty in the Midst of Affluence, that government outsourcing is based on a private business model to minimise expenditure and maximise productivity, with little concern for the welfare of workers.

In a recent Legislative Council meeting on outsourcing, the government failed to provide any information about how much money is being saved by outsourcing. More worryingly, officials also failed to describe any method of, or interest in, ensuring the well-being of contracted workers.

Contracted employees of these “middlemen” companies are underpaid, overworked and have no job security and few career prospects. Staff morale is often low, and there are high turnover rates.

Outsourcing has created a pool of low-income earners in the community. Their livelihoods are easily threatened by the abundant supply of manpower migrating from mainland China.

Outsourcing has widened the income gap of the working population in Hong Kong. One simple example illustrates the point very well. Ordinarily, a cleaner employed by the government would be on a monthly wage of around HK$11,000. Outsourcing the work, however, the government only has to pay HK$9,000.

Workers employed by the outside company are paid about HK$7,000, with the remainder providing the company with a reasonable profit margin. So, cleaners who normally could have earned HK$11,000 are instead getting HK$7,000 to do the same job – and with less favourable working conditions.

At the same time, these low-income workers may need to apply for a government transport subsidy to get to work. Based on figures from the Census and Statistics Department, the median income of workers rose by nearly 80 per cent from HK$10,000 in 1991 to HK$18,000 in 2001. However, from 2001 to 2011, salaries increased by only 12 per cent, from HK$18,000 to HK20,500, whereas Hong Kong’s gross domestic product for the same period increased by more than 40 per cent.

Thus, Hong Kong society as a whole is richer but those on a low income have not benefited as much from this economic growth. As a matter of fact, the salaries of low-income earners were even lower until the implementation of the minimum wage in 2011.

There are proven weaknesses in the existing system. The government needs to invest more in homegrown products and services to ensure their quality and consistent delivery.

There is little control of outsourced work and employees as the company does all the hiring and firing, and while the government could monitor the procedures and results, it would certainly incur higher costs for doing so. The lack of sufficient monitoring compromises transparency and accountability as well as the quality and timeliness of the goods and services delivered.

What do we gain by outsourcing? Financially little, but the negative impact can be enormous. While the government might save 10-20 per cent on salaries through outsourcing, the significant number of contract workers in our community are providing vital services but receiving the very minimum in return. This affects not just workers’ well-being but also that of their family members.

Furthermore, contract services tend to last two to three years and companies are unwilling to invest in automation and innovation in the workplace.

It is surprising and disturbing to learn that the government has no information on how much money is being saved by outsourcing the work, and apparently has no interest in assessing the well-being of the workers.

By outsourcing some jobs, the government creates more work for itself, since it now needs to appoint staff to deal with the outsourcing companies. And the low-paid workers may end up needing social assistance, thus adding to the burden on the social security network.

A job with a reasonable salary in any society is more than just a business transaction, especially when it comes to providing a government service. It is a commitment to its people and an opportunity for less-skilled citizens to advance their well-being by working and contributing to economic development.

As a society, we need to rethink remuneration for low-income groups, given the low levels of social assistance here. It is time to reconsider the government policy of outsourcing work; it should certainly not be done out of short-term financial considerations, at the expense of people’s interests.

At present, the government is not only outsourcing the work but also its responsibility to workers. It has enough in its reserves to invest in capacity-building, rather than trying to rip off the vulnerable in society. It is time to provide real jobs for real pay to Hong Kong people.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong