Is there a law somewhere that says civil servants are a sub-human breed, entitled to fewer human rights than other people? So asks mentioned-two-days-in-a-row former bureaucrat Mike Rowse in today’s South China Morning Post.
“If not, why not?” many right-thinking people will no doubt wonder by way of response. Mr Rowse, however, has an agenda of his own. Understandably, he differs from most of us in that he actually gives a hoot about the rights of Hong Kong civil servants – specifically, the supposed right of senior pen-pushers to retire on their very handsome pensions and then to un-retire and work in the private sector, even for companies that could use their insider knowledge and contacts, or that previously benefited from their decision-making.
Like many former and current members of our extremely highly remunerated bureaucracy, Mr Rowse bitterly resents the current restrictions on the oxymoron that is post-retirement employment. These self-absorbed public servants may be correct in saying that these restraints break the spirit of international human rights treaties and offend such principles as equal rights and the right not to have to prove your own innocence. But the rest of us don’t care.
To Mr Rowse, the right of the ex-bureaucrat to work counts as a “policy imperative” on a par with that of the need to ensure there are no conflicts of interests. To the rest of the community, however, the latter overrides the former.
The reason is not simply because of the Leung Chin-man case, in which a bureaucrat used his discretionary powers to make decisions that resulted in billions of extra profits for property developers, and then accepted a senior position with one when he retired. It is because everywhere we look we see officials doing favours for tycoons.
Mr Rowse (only following orders, of course) negotiated the curse on taxpayers known as Hong Kong Disneyland, a massive transfer of wealth from the populace to a corporate giant. The company that hired Leung, New World, recently managed to redevelop a neighbourhood in partnership with the government’s Urban Renewal Authority and build the Masterpiece, an eyesore that flouted zoning rules and made billions for insiders by selling luxury units to mainlanders with funny-smelling cash.
The list of smaller examples is endless. On countless occasions loopholes have appeared in paperwork mysteriously allowing developers to build higher than they should have, to omit facilities they should have included, to block public rights of way, to call ‘residential’ a ‘hotel’ and so on and so on. Pedestrians died at the junction of Wyndham Street and Queens Road because developers didn’t build the required walkway between Central Tower and the Entertainment Building. All the result of civil servants making decisions that, amazingly, translated into extra profit for property tycoons. And let’s not get into the lavish highway construction, rural pathway enhancement, playground equipment contracts and other grubbiness.
People are sick of this. And if some former bureaucrats of integrity – and I have no doubt Mike Rowse is clean as a whistle (he’d shut up if he wasn’t) – have to have their fingers cut off when they leave the service to keep them out of all the pies out there, too bad. It is true, as Rowse complains, that politically appointed officials with true policymaking power should have tougher post-retirement rules, but that’s no reason for civil servants to insist on two rounds at a banquet most Hongkongers only dream of seeing even once. It’s also true that a more rules-based administrative system, with less space for discretionary decision-making, would help clean things up – but we don’t hear much call for it from inside the ranks.
And who the hell wants to work anyway? In the old days, the retired civil servant got on a steamship and sailed back to the UK to spend the rest of his days tending roses, and no-one ever heard from him again. Nowadays, they stay here, their lust for ‘serving the community’ apparently unsatiated. Doing some charity work, writing columns for the newspaper, mentoring deprived kids, hiking, basket-weaving – are none of these things good enough? After slaving robotically in a suit behind a desk for decades and being released on a full pension, they feel a pressing need to go straight back to an office. Why? If they’re not on the take, they’re mentally ill.