Hong Kong now em­braces a new era of strong CE Bob Lee

Notes Lam’s as­sertive ap­proach marks a shift to­ward ‘ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance’ style

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Car­rie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, on her first of­fi­cial visit to Bei­jing af­ter tak­ing of­fice, told re­porters rather mat­ter-of-factly on Tues­day that the Ex­press Rail Link co-lo­ca­tion ar­range­ment had gone through years of tin­ker­ing, with a lot of at­ten­tion to its le­gal ba­sis. It had there­fore long passed the point of no re­turn. Act­ing CE Matthew Che­ung Kin-chung also said clearly in Hong Kong that the co-lo­ca­tion ar­range­ment is “an ab­so­lute must in­stead of op­tion”. That is why what needs to be done is ex­plain and com­mu­ni­cate, not a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, he added. “Since it is the only work­able ar­range­ment, what good can con­sul­ta­tion bring to it?”

Some peo­ple com­plain the govern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion is too much of a “hard sell” but any other in­ter­pre­ta­tion would not be able to change the fact that Lam’s moves so far sent a strong sig­nal — her gov­ern­ing style will shift from “pos­i­tive non-in­ter­ven­tion­ism” to “ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance”.

“Ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance” refers to a govern­ment phi­los­o­phy that gives the ex­ec­u­tive branch slightly more power over the leg­is­la­ture and ju­di­ciary for the sake of more ef­fi­cient pol­i­cy­mak­ing to bet­ter serve so­cial de­vel­op­ment. This mode of gov­er­nance was not in­vented by the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion govern­ment, in case any­one won­dered, but was in fact a prod­uct of the Bri­tish Hong Kong ad­min­is­tra­tion, led by the gov­er­nor. Un­der the gov­er­nor-led ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem the gov­er­nor en­joyed uni­tary le­git­i­macy granted by the suzerain through ap­point­ment. Un­der the ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance, mean­while, the CE’s le­git­i­macy is twofold — through demo­cratic elec­tion and cen­tral govern­ment ap­point­ment. In this sense Hong Kong’s demo­cratic sys­tem con­sti­tutes a tan­gi­ble step for­ward in gov­er­nance evo­lu­tion.

Two weeks ago, Lam took her first over­seas trip as CE when she ar­rived in Sin­ga­pore on Aug 1, ex­actly a month af­ter tak­ing of­fice. Her de­ci­sion to visit Sin­ga­pore first is def­i­nitely sig­nif­i­cant, con­sid­er­ing how sim­i­lar the two places are and how of­ten peo­ple com­pare them.

Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore are in­deed sim­i­lar in sev­eral ways: Both are “very small” in size, have adopted the rule of law thanks to Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tion and earned the dis­tinc­tion of “Asian Tigers” for achiev­ing “eco­nomic miracles” in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. How­ever, these two metropoli­tan en­ti­ties are quite dif­fer­ent when it comes to gov­ern­ing style. The most strik­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Hong Kong’s gov­er­nance has been “pos­i­tive non-in­ter­ven­tion­ism”, adopted by the Bri­tish Hong Kong govern­ment in the 1980s; while Sin­ga­pore has been un­der “ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance” ever since it was founded by Lee Kuan Yew, who was be­rated by the West for al­most “dic­ta­to­rial rule”. It is also re­ferred to as “guided democ­racy”.

Sin­ga­pore’s ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem is based on Bri­tain’s West­min­ster par­lia­men­tary democ­racy but with its own spin to suit Sin­ga­pore’s unique­ness. De­spite the govern­ment’s as­sertive­ness and even brazen­ness, few deny that Sin­ga­pore owes its suc­cess very much to its ob­ses­sion with “high ef­fi­ciency, clean govern­ment, lim­ited democ­racy and econ­omy first”. The Peo­ple’s Ac­tion Party strongly be­lieves ev­ery­thing it does ul­ti­mately serves the best in­ter­ests of the coun­try. Al­though that con­vic­tion is un­der con­stant de­bate, the great ma­jor­ity of Sin­ga­pore­ans agree the coun­try must main­tain its sta­tus as one of the most com­pet­i­tive and in­no­va­tive economies in the world.

Lam said while vis­it­ing the Lee Kuan Yew School of Pub­lic Pol­icy at the Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Sin­ga­pore, where stu­dents are trained to be­come civil ser­vants, that Hong Kong needs its own train­ing fa­cil­ity for pub­lic ser­vants. The cur­rent SAR govern­ment still main­tains the Bri­tish Hong Kong civil of­fi­cial­dom dom­i­nated by tech­nocrats. This bu­reau­cratic sys­tem now faces the tough chal­lenge of ad­vanc­ing with the times so as to re­main rel­e­vant and ef­fi­cient. There­fore a se­ri­ous ques­tion Hong Kong needs to fig­ure out is how its gov­ern­ing pro­fi­ciency should be im­proved con­tin­u­ously.

For­mer CE Le­ung Chun-ying, Lam’s pre­de­ces­sor, sug­gested many times dur­ing his term in of­fice that the SAR govern­ment should switch grad­u­ally from “pos­i­tive non-in­ter­ven­tion­ism” to “ap­pro­pri­ately proac­tive”. The idea was no doubt his re­sponse to al­most 20 years of strug­gles by the SAR govern­ment to end its in­abil­ity to main­tain ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance no mat­ter how much it wanted to. There are three main rea­sons for this sorry sit­u­a­tion. One is the in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary; an­other is the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil, whose right to amend govern­ment bills al­lows it to un­der­mine the ex­ec­u­tive branch with fil­i­bus­ter­ing, and still an­other is the Bri­tish colo­nial sys­tem of bu­reau­cracy which leaves the CE lit­tle room for ma­neu­ver­ing when it comes to ex­ec­u­tive power con­trol. The ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem adopted by Hong Kong’s first CE, Tung Chee-hwa, was a sig­nif­i­cant step to­ward achiev­ing “ex­ec­u­tive-led gov­er­nance” but has not been ad­vanced.

Lam’s first month in of­fice qual­i­fies as a good start and showed her po­ten­tial to end the era of “weak CEs” for the SAR govern­ment.

The cur­rent SAR govern­ment still main­tains the Bri­tish Hong Kong civil of­fi­cial­dom dom­i­nated by tech­nocrats. This bu­reau­cratic sys­tem now faces the tough chal­lenge of ad­vanc­ing with the times so as to re­main rel­e­vant and ef­fi­cient.

The au­thor is ex­ec­u­tive editor-in-chief of ThinkHK.com, an on­line pub­li­ca­tion of the Our Hong Kong Foun­da­tion.

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