Opinion | The Art of Government: Reigniting Hong Kong's old magic
By Philip Yeung, university teacher
If, as a traveler, you visit the port of entry at the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, you will come face to face at the transparent glass-top bus shelters with a forest of umbrellas shielding waiting passengers from the scorching sun. Others awkwardly cover their heads with jackets for relief from the brutal heat. A ridiculous sight in a city once synonymous with efficiency!
Bus shelters have a basic function—as a shield against the sun and the rain. But their design ignores this fundamental purpose. The fancy-looking shelters are only good against the rain, absolutely useless against the sweltering sun.
Somebody forgets to put on the thinking cap. Here, accountability is only an empty slogan. The unbreakable iron rice-bowl means that no officials pay for any malfeasance or mistakes. On the mainland, officials face instant demotion, dismissal and even jail-time for misdeeds. Fear keeps them on their toes. Here, a Bible belief among bureaucrats is "take fewer steps and you will make fewer missteps". Doing the minimum guarantees occupational longevity. They ill-serve their people.
The cure for this arthritic habit is simple: let them walk in the shoes of end-users. Too often an idea that looks perfect on paper turns out to be an idiocy. Take the case of the ironically-named JoyYou card for senior citizens. It is supposed to replace the seniors' Octopus pass, a card often fraudulently used by the ineligible to enjoy cheap transit fares. Conferring no additional privileges, the joyless JoyYou card is a brainless bureaucrat's answer to a worsening problem. Not only joyless, it sends tens of thousands of senior citizens into a panic when they discover that in order to receive the government's free consumption vouchers, they need their surrendered original Octopus cards. Another self-inflicted bureaucratic wound.
The latest consumption vouchers are worth $3000 and $2000. To enjoy the second voucher, you must first use up the entire $3000 voucher by 16 July. If you fall one dollar short, you must top it up and wait a whole month for the second voucher. To handle an avalanche of complaints, the government sets up a handful of user-aid centers, each manned by dozens of assistants to cool tempers in this man-made mess. It is more for less. The first principle of good government is simplicity. A simpler arrangement dictates that if you spent less than the maximum, you will receive a second voucher with a matching deduction. Visiting a service center is for the stone age, not the digital age.
As for concessionary fares, Hong Kong should hang its head in shame: In neighboring Macau, Zhuhai and Shenzhen, senior citizens now enjoy free public transit. Shenzhen doesn't even require a special card, just proof of age. Hong Kong makes a big production about its two-dollar fare for the elderly. The costs of administering it probably eat up the revenue from the two-dollar fare. Don't tell me that super-wealthy Hong Kong can't match the generosity of even a humble second-tier city.
Another bureaucratic blunder driving the poor up the wall is Transitional Housing, run by NGO's but supported by the government. After Donald Tsang suspended the construction of public housing and drove up property prices sky-high by offering residency rights to foreign property purchasers, sheer lunacy in an overcrowded city notorious for land shortage, the wait for rental public housing has lengthened into six years. Thus Transitional Housing was born. Citizens applying for rental public housing can stay in decent temporary flats while waiting. But there is a catch. They can stay no more than three years in T-homes, after that they must move back into their former hell-holes, the notorious subdivided flats. This is cruel. It defeats the very purpose of Transitional Housing--a yawning gap between an idea and meeting its intended purpose.
The concept of Unintended Consequences hasn't crossed bureaucratic minds. A poorly conceived scheme can turn nightmarish. For example, the Territory-wide System Assessment was supposed to give schools objective indicators of their student's basic competencies. But it has two deadly by-products: robbing young students of their childhood, stressing them out. The other is the stigma of labelling schools as low-banding, inflicting an inferiority complex on fragile students. It is horrendously anti-educational. Without a 360-degrees examination, a good idea can become a bad practice.
Our Chief Executive is a man of action. Mr. John Lee wants to leave a legacy of renaissance for his beloved city. For years, Hong Kong has been sliding backwards and going sideways—derailed by political hyper-activism and distracted by negativism. It once possessed a certain magic. Singapore leaders used to come here treating it as a mecca for good government. Now the role is reversed. Being an open city of high achievers is our destiny. Time for bold social engineering, not piecemeal cosmetic changes. A good place to start is overhauling public service. The Ombudsman's Office targets improvement in public administration, but it only acts after official complaints against governmental malpractice. Its mandate is limited to advocating a positive complaint culture. What Hong Kong now needs is a positive culture of efficiency. It is overdue for an Efficiency Watchdog, manned by the best brains who can think out of the box, vetting every project or proposal to ensure that it ticks all the boxes. It can also instill the art of government into officials. Efficiency is apolitical and the language the world understands and respects. Just ask Singapore. People forgive and forget its political stringency because of its administrative efficiency. The National Security Law has restored order and security. But repairing the damage calls for making our city as politics-proof as possible. Too much politics has ruined this fabled city, as it is already ruining America. Those who live by politics will die by politics. Our loyalty to our country is never in doubt. Make Hong Kong the most apolitical city in China, loving our country, but loving the world too and being loved in return, in a way no mainland city can ever be. Let Hong Kong return to its good-natured freedom-loving but law-abiding roots. Let efficiency break the stranglehold of politics. Above all, let efficiency be our DNA and calling card to the world. Instead of staggering from crisis to crisis, an Efficiency Watchdog will steady the ship far more than a wishy-washy or pie-in-the-sky think tank. It will be Mr. Lee's enduring legacy.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
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