Marking the Ministers

As we approach the first anniversary of her cabinet’s appointment, it is time to assess the performance of the ministers selected by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngoh.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin Chung is the eldest of the "big three" at 66. He has had a reasonable year in that no obvious clangers have been dropped and he has the priceless quality of not posing any threat to his boss. Although his appointment was initially viewed as an interim solution, he could smile his amiable way through for a while longer.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo Po was clearly not Lam’s first choice, as the names of several other options were fiercely leaked to the media at the time. At one point he looked a possible candidate for the early chop, but having succeeded in securing passage of the first budget of this administration without the filibustering that had become the norm in recent years, his position looks a bit more secure.

Justice chief Teresa Cheng Yeuk Wah got off to poor start in January when she finally replaced reluctant holdover Rimsky Yuen Kwok Keung. The controversy over unauthorised building structures at her properties was still swirling when it emerged that the multi-owner had somehow qualified as a "first time buyer" for the purposes of stamp duty. Paradoxically, it may be her very vulnerability that keeps her in post as Lam would not wish to appear weak by jettisoning the person she has defended so robustly through one scandal after another.

Turning to the more junior ministers, there are some bright spots. Health Secretary Sophia Chan Siu Chee always comes across as a quietly competent professional. Commerce Secretary Edward Yau Tung Wah finally seems to have found a post where he can deliver. Things are bubbling in financial services, so the eldest cabinet member James Lau should be entitled to claim some of the credit. Of the younger members, Development Secretary Michael Wong Wai Lun has put forward a bold revamp of clearance compensation and cabinet "baby" Patrick Nip Tak Kuen seems to be growing in the job.

There are two stand out strugglers, Education chief Kevin Yeung Yun Hung and Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan Fan. Yeung apparently has a problem with prepositions. Textbook changes have been ordered on the grounds that saying "Hong Kong is in southern China" is ambiguous. No it isn’t, it means our city is inside China towards the southern end. "To the south of China" is not ambiguous either, it is just wrong because it means Hong Kong is not part of China but lies outside it to the south. I rather like the formulation that 1997 saw China "resume the exercise of sovereignty" but that does not preclude continued use of the word "handover" to describe the British departure and the arrival of the PLA garrison, especially as the term had been in wide use by mainland officials. It is more like a case of pre-emptive political correctness.

Similarly with the decision to drop references to the 1967 riots, and Hong Kong’s response to the events of 1989 from our official past. The sight of a million citizens, marshalled by 800 unarmed policemen, marching peacefully to show support for the students in Tiananmen Square was surely one of the most remarkable events in our history. Nobody injured, no cars overturned, not a single shop looted – can anyone think of another city in the world where such an event could have taken place? What will go when Yeung next wields his airbrush? The 500,000 man march of 2003? Occupy? These are the very events which define us.

There is not a single part of Chan’s policy brief where he looks comfortable. The number of private cars on our streets continues to grow exponentially with no signs of any attempt to slow it down or – better yet – to reverse it. Very soon the otherwise strong bus and minibus supplement to our excellent rail services will not be able to carry the load, crushed to inadequacy by rising congestion. Moreover the proportion of electric and hybrid vehicles among them which had been rising is now in reverse following the rollback of the special tax concessions. So we are back with the pollution-spewing petrol and diesel powered cars manufactured by the companies that lied for years about exhaust emissions. This at a time when other communities are setting deadlines for a complete switch away from such vehicles. Where once we led, we now barely follow. Shenzhen will this year complete conversion to a 100 per cent electric taxi fleet. Remember when we thought they were the country bumpkins? Where is the vision Frank?

While we are on the subject of taxis, the mainland like most other places in Asia has amended its regulatory regime to permit ride hailing services such as Uber, Grab and Didi Chuxing. Here we still cower before the might of the taxi owners lobby and arrest Uber drivers. While other parts of the government are pledging billions of dollars to pursue our technological future, the backwater of transport resists all meaningful change. When challenged on this at a recent meeting with international businessmen, all Chan could say was that the drivers broke the law. Has he thought of amending it? I do not propose to dwell overmuch on the other half of Chan’s schedule, except to record his answer as to why he had no plans to legislate against the construction and sale of unhealthy micro flats "because then people would not be able to afford to buy anything". As an example of convoluted thinking, this statement wins a special prize.

So if Lam is looking to freshen up the team as she moves forward, here are a couple of places she could start.