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Civil service buffeted by the elements

Paris, 6 September 2023: As any civil engineer will tell you, a skyscraper sways in gale-force winds. Hence, some high-living Hong Kong residents reported headaches and motion sickness as Typhoon Saola – registering a maximum 10 on the storm scale – slammed into our city last Friday. While appreciating the cheerful Buildings Department reassurances on social media about flexible structures, it’s still rather eerie watching your ceiling lamp swing back and forth.

The winds of change are also blowing though our civil service and, like tall tower blocks, staff are required to bend with the new rules. These include clearing up after a typhoon. Authorities activated the “government-wide mobilisation” response for the first time since it was introduced in Chief Executive John Lee’s policy address last year. Some 100 civil servants were deployed – helping return elderly residents from temporary shelters to care homes, removing sandbags and clearing roads – as part of a community effort that highlighted the best of Hong Kong. Saola caused dozens of injuries, 1,545 fallen trees, 21 cases of flooding and two landslides. Most citizens agree we got off lightly.

Hurricane help notwithstanding, civil servants have been warned this week that persistent underperformers will be sacked under a streamlined system designed to reduce “unnecessary representations” by those facing the axe. Officers who regularly fall short despite support “should be terminated in a timely manner” while the right to an independent review panel has been dropped, confirms the Civil Service Bureau.

Federation of Civil Service Union Chairman Leung Chau-ting is unimpressed, cautioning the measures might deter people interested in government jobs. He points out the overhaul puts workers at the mercy of their supervisors, who could downgrade them for personal or subjective reasons. “This new reform will worsen the manpower crunch,” he concludes.

Indeed, the civil service has faced a record-high worker exodus in recent years, with 3,863 resignations in the 2022-23 financial year and 3,734 prior to that. Executive Council Convenor Regina Ip – in detailing the civil service’s proud history and high standards – believes the public protests of recent years have “brought a sea change to the environment in which local civil servants have been working”. She calls the talent drain, especially from the elite-level Administrative Service, “worrisome”.

One departure has certainly made headlines. Wong Tai Sin District Officer Steve Wong – an Administrative Service rising star – is moving to Beijing for study purposes, but has sparked a kerfuffle after 500 guests, including officials, lawmakers and representatives of pro-Beijing district groups, attended a farewell banquet in his honour. Former Hong Kong leader CY Leung is furious, saying such “ostentatious and extravagant” practices by the pro-establishment camp need to stop. With senior figures wading into the debate, an embarrassed Wong has apologised and admits to a “perception problem” with the event.

Dinner-gate, so to speak, has had a knock-on effect. A charity concert – “The Great Voices of Legislative Council” – showcasing the singing talents of government officials and lawmakers, has been called off, with organisers concluding “it is not suitable to hold the event at this time”. Veteran lawmaker Martin Liao had warned colleagues to beware bad press if their party antics received more media coverage than their day jobs. LegCo member Eunice Yung, due to belt out Leslie Cheung’s Cantopop classic Monica at the gala, says she and two New People’s Party colleagues have pulled the plug “in the hope that people could focus more on our work”.

Or lack of it, some might opine. A report has found at least two-thirds of bills were passed in the previous LegCo year with under half of all lawmakers present, falling short of the 45-member quorum requirement. No problem, insists John Lee. While acknowledging civil servants and lawmakers are subject to public scrutiny, he believes they always have their “ears wide open” to feedback.

Setting a good example in this regard, your correspondent was suitably attentive while recording our latest Law & More podcast with Malaysian lawyer, philanthropist and patron of the arts Saniza Othman. In a wide-ranging discussion, Saniza’s passion for Hong Kong shines through, as does her belief in the arts as a unifying force in our often-divided community. Please have a listen.

Thus inspired, another trip to the famous Louvre Museum is on my agenda now that I have just landed back in one of my most cherished cities, Paris. Truth be told, though, this extended visit – taking in much of the country – is more sporting than artistic, with the Rugby World Cup holding my attention for the next few weeks. South Africa are marginal favourites. Another England triumph, alas, appears unlikely.

My pick? With a nod to the Parisian side of my family – and the just-departed Saola – I expect the hosts to blow typhoon-like through this tournament. France’s towering forwards will, I believe, hold sway.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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