19 October 2018
Spot the similarity: Jessie Ting (right) was deputy secretary for development when Carrie Lam (left) was head of the Development Bureau. Photos: GovHK, Lingnan University
Spot the similarity: Jessie Ting (right) was deputy secretary for development when Carrie Lam (left) was head of the Development Bureau. Photos: GovHK, Lingnan University

Does Carrie Lam have a problem with civil servants?

In less than a week’s time – on Sunday, March 26, to be exact – we will know our next chief executive after the votes of the 1,194-member Election Committee are tallied.

But why is the government acting as if it already knows who will be the winner of the election?

On Monday, the government announced that the office for the chief executive-elect has been set up to ensure a smooth transition.

The office, which occupies an entire floor at Champion Tower on Garden Road in Central, will serve as a temporary work place for the winner of the leadership race so that he or she can form a governing team and plan for the new government.

The fitting-out cost was initially estimated at HK$15 million, but the outgoing administration lowered it to about HK$10 million.

The total cost, including staff salaries and miscellaneous costs, is around HK$35 million for the three months the office will used until the end of June.

Former postmaster general Jessie Ting Yip Yin-mei will head the office with 25 other officials.

The costs aside, an office for the chief executive-elect is a normal practice. But the choice of the office head managed to draw considerable attention from the public as Ting once worked under CE election frontrunner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. 

Ting was deputy secretary for development when Lam was head of the Development Bureau. (Some people also observe that Ting is a dead ringer for the CE candidate.)

Another official appointed to the office is Terence Yu, an assistant director at the Information Services Department. He will serve as the CE-elect’s press secretary.

Like in Ting’s case, Yu’s relation with Lam goes a long way back. He was responsible for media relations under Lam at the Development Bureau.

It’s highly desirable that trusted men and women work for the CE-elect.

It just appears suspiciously prescient on the part of the government to pick people who had worked for Lam to be chosen for the transition office before the election, of which the winner will not be known until Sunday.

Of course, one should say that Ting also worked with another CE candidate, John Tsang Chun-wah, when she was with the Office of the Chief Executive during Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s term.

And we don’t doubt the competence of the officials chosen to run the CE-elect’s office.

However, in order to avoid suspicions about the integrity of the CE election, would it have been better if the outgoing administration chose people who had no previous working relations with any of the candidates?

The controversy over the transition office for the CE-elect comes amid rumors that many senior government officials plan to quit civil service if Carrie Lam becomes the next CE because of their problems with her management style.

Last week former legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing warned of an “exodus of administrative officers” should Lam win the CE election.

Administrative officers are among the highest-ranked civil servants in Hong Kong, having gone through a long training process to prepare them to become top officials.

When told about the rumors, Lam said she hadn’t heard about anyone planning to leave the civil service because of her.

“I heard many colleagues are hoping I would become chief executive so that I could implement [my election manifesto],” she said.

Citing her sources, Lau said these officials have been complaining that Lam refused to listen to other people’s views, which is why they are “frustrated and worried”.

In response, Lam said everyone has good and bad qualities, and as such, there must be some people who don’t like her.

Lau Sai-leung, an adviser to the government’s think tank, the Central Policy Unit, from 2006 to 2012, said he was worried that senior civil servants would quit if Lam won the election.

He recalled that Lam, when she was the secretary for development, threatened to resign during a row with then chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen.

Writing on social media, Lau Sai-leung said Lam was a control freak. Administrative officers who held views that were different from hers were often insulted because she believed she was right, he said.

She also lost her temper when her decision was overruled by her boss, he added.

Meanwhile, Secretary for the Civil Service Clement Cheung Wan-ching denied rumors of mass resignations being planned by administrative officers.

Nonetheless, the rumors, if true, would mean a rough ride for Lam once she takes over the helm of government as the implementation of her policies will depend largely on the support of civil servants.

As chief executive, Lam should know how to deal effectively with the civil servants, and that means treating them with respect and professionalism, and giving value to their views and recommendations, even if they run counter to her own stance and beliefs.

Otherwise, people may find reason to believe the allegation that she would just be Leung Chun-ying 2.0.

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EJ Insight writer

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