Generation 40s – 四十世代

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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

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Higher retirement age for civil servants mustn’t harm public interest

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Joseph Wong

Joseph Wong applauds the government’s plan to raise the retirement age for civil servants, but says the conditions set for the new limits must be clearly spelled out to protect public interests

The government’s proposal of a higher retirement age for newly hired civil servants and more flexible post-retirement opportunities for those already serving have far-reaching implications across society.

Unlike some developed countries, Hong Kong has no mandatory retirement age. Most private-sector employees retire at 60, which is the retirement age set for civilian grades in the civil service (while the disciplined services retire at 55, or 57 for senior ranks). Yet, under the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme applicable to all employees except the lowest-paid, the stipulated age for the withdrawal of accrued benefits is 65. Added to this anomaly is the fact that Hong Kong’s population is ageing fast, with one in three expected to reach 65 and above by 2041.

Against this background, it makes sense for the government to propose a higher retirement age for recruits. The plan is to raise the limit to 65 for civil servants in civilian grades, and 57 for officers in the disciplined services grades. The latter may also be allowed to work until 60, provided they pass the relevant assessments and physical fitness test.

The present retirement age for civil servants was fixed in 1987, 27 years ago. In 1987, life expectancy in Hong Kong was 74 for men and 80 for women. Now it is 81 and 87 respectively. So a higher retirement age is clearly justified in demographic terms. It is certainly not high when compared with, say, Taiwan, which has a mandatory retirement age of 65. In other places in the region, most people work beyond 60 and the trend is to raise the retirement age beyond 60.

Based on the projection of the number of retirees in the civil service – that is, an annual average of 4.4 per cent of civil service strength for the five-year period from 2017-18 to 2022-23, and declining to 3.4 per cent for the next five years ending 2027-28 – I agree with the Civil Service Bureau that there is no justification to extend the retirement age of serving civil servants across the board, as the government did in 1987.

Unlike some developed countries, Hong Kong has no mandatory retirement age. Photo: K. Y. Cheng [1]

Instead, the government has proposed a package of further employment opportunities for civil servants reaching their normal retirement age. This is a matter of public interest that deserves examination and comment.

The proposal to allow heads of departments or grades to grant an extension of service of up to five years to current officers reaching retirement age, compared with the present limit of one year, is a significant relaxation. It is right for the Civil Service Bureau to stipulate that the proposed extension will be subject to relevant conditions such as “well justified operational and/or succession needs, no undue promotion blockage, good performance and physical fitness, and periodic review of the duration of further employment”.

But this is not enough to safeguard against possible favouritism by heads of departments in exercising their authority, or to remove the suspicion of those officers whose applications are rejected. Tighter rules, at least for the first five years, and subject to review in the light of experience afterwards, would be useful.

These could include: extensions to be granted on an annual basis; endorsement by the secretary for the civil service for the third extension and beyond; officers whose applications are rejected or who are concerned that their promotion may be blocked could appeal to the bureau; and general oversight of all extensions by the independent Public Service Commission. Further, the consultation paper has also put forward a new “Post-retirement Service Contract Scheme”.

Under the scheme, the government may employ retired civil servants on contract terms “to perform ad hoc time-limited tasks which require civil servant expertise and/or experience, but cannot be undertaken by civil service established posts because of the urgent or part-time nature of the jobs”.

Unlike recruits to the civil service or staff appointed under the current Non-Civil Service Contract Scheme, retirees employed under the proposed scheme would not have to go through an open and competitive recruitment process. This major departure from Hong Kong’s way of doing things, carrying with it risks of abuse of authority, can only be justified if the exceptional circumstances set out in the consultation paper can be clearly defined in the implementation rules.

In this respect, further thought must be given to what constitutes “urgent”, the initial time-limit of an ad hoc task, the total duration of a “part-time” job, and so on.

I also suggest that the bureau and Public Service Commission should play an active role in monitoring and overseeing the new scheme, and the government should file periodic reports to the Legislative Council public service panel for review, similar to what it has been doing with the Non-Civil Service Contract Scheme.

In relaxing the rules for further employment within the civil service, the government has also taken the opportunity to relax the rules on post-retirement employment in the private sector for non-directorate civil servants at junior ranks. At present, low-skilled civil servants are already given blanket permission to take up outside work immediately after retirement. It is appropriate to extend this policy to other junior frontline and supporting civil servants.

But while the consultation paper’s suggestion to draw a line on the basis of a certain pay point looks reasonable, it would be prudent to consider whether some civil servants should not enjoy such blanket permission because they have had access to certain sensitive information in the course of their duties.

In general, the proposal to set a higher retirement age is well justified and should be implemented as quickly as possible. While the other proposals to provide further employment opportunities for serving civil servants are sound in principle, we should reserve final judgment until we are satisfied that the implementation details provide sufficient safeguard to protect the interests of civil servants and the public at large.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, a former secretary for the civil service, is a political commentator