20 November 2018
Edward Leung Tin-kei was barred from running in the Legco election even after he agreed to sign the declaration pledging allegiance to the Basic Law. Photo: HKEJ
Edward Leung Tin-kei was barred from running in the Legco election even after he agreed to sign the declaration pledging allegiance to the Basic Law. Photo: HKEJ

Why political impartiality of civil servants is crucial

As the nomination period for next month’s Legislative Council election drew to a close on July 29, a total of six people were barred from running on account of their political convictions.

Among them is Edward Leung Tin-kei of the pro-independence Hong Kong Indigenous, who was not allowed to run even after he agreed to sign a declaration pledging allegiance to the Basic Law.

The Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) said the returning officer believed Leung was not “truly faithful” to his pledge to support the Basic Law.

Dismayed at the absurdity of the EAC decision, 30 members of the Election Committee representing the legal sector, including some of the most renowned senior barristers in our city, published an open letter earlier this month expressing deep regrets about the “unconstitutional” move.

They said EAC’s action amounts to political censorship and constitutes the most serious violation of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Shortly after the commission announced that anyone intending to run in the September election had to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Basic Law, I already pointed out that returning officers (civil servants overseeing the process of elections) must act very cautiously in deciding whether a person is eligible to run, and must not deny anybody candidacy recklessly unless the Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed that there are overwhelmingly substantial legal grounds that can stand the most rigorous court scrutiny.

Unfortunately, I don’t think any decent government lawyer with the DOJ would ever consider the grounds based on which Leung was disqualified as “overwhelmingly substantial”.

In fact, they don’t even stand a fighting chance to be accepted by the court.

The fact that civil servants were left to their own devices in deciding whether a person is eligible to run for Legco based entirely on his or her political stance has seriously undermined the long-standing political impartiality of our civil service, and its ramifications could be far-reaching.

So why is it so important to uphold the political impartiality of our civil service?

Let’s not forget the main reason why Hong Kong people still find our civil servants reliable and trustworthy is because most of them believe, at least as of now, civil servants will always act in the public interest rather than the political interest of the administration.

As such, political impartiality forms the cornerstone of public confidence in our civil service.

Once that impartiality is gone, so is the hard-earned public confidence in our entire civil service.

As far as the returning officers are concerned, they are entrusted with the power to oversee the process of elections and vote-counting.

If they couldn’t even remain impartial over who was eligible to run, how could they assure the public that they could remain impartial during vote-counting, and would not interfere in the process in order to influence the election results because their superiors told them to do so?

The long-term stability of our society would definitely be at stake if the people no longer have confidence in the fairness of our elections.

When I was serving as the Secretary for Civil Service before I retired, I laid down six guiding principles on the conduct of civil servants.

Among them are “defending the rule of law”, “upholding personal integrity”and “always staying objective and impartial”.

Sadly, the way the returning officers disqualified the six Legco candidates last month basically violated these guiding principles.

While there is an established, and sometimes rigid, system of hierarchy within our civil service, and civil servants are supposed to follow the orders of their superiors, it remains their responsibility to make sure that these orders are in line with public interest.

It is because at the end of the day, they are getting paid by taxpayers’ money, and it is the general public, not the bureau chief or the chief executive, who is their ultimate boss.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 10.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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