SETW's speech at the Annual Gala Dinner of the Hong Kong Journalists Association

Following is the speech (English only) by the Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works Dr Sarah Liao for the Annual Gala Dinner of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (6 June):

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am honoured and, frankly, a bit frightened by this opportunity to speak at your annual dinner.

I am honoured because I can participate in celebrating our vibrant and free media. There is no doubt that a free and lively press is one of the great assets that sets Hong Kong apart in Asia. This is also a happy occasion. A gathering like this is no longer taken for granted because Sars has given us a new perspective on life.

But I am also a bit frightened: because, just when I am now beginning to review my first year in government, I will be sharing some of my thoughts with over 200 of the most independent minds of Hong Kong.

The least frightening of the scenarios is that no one cares or reports on what I say here, but remembers how poorly I played the piano!

The worst scenario, though, is that there will be many reports, all different, and unfortunately, most will get it wrong - may be not, since this is a happy occasion, I should be less cynical - I should say at least a few get it right.

Such was my ordeal for the past week - as I was struggling with my speech and the piano, while reflecting on where we are and where we are headed, an anecdote of Iztchak Perlman, the maestro violinist, keeps popping up in my mind. It is a news-story reported in a respected newspaper in the US and spread like wildfire over the internet.

"Maestro Itzhak Perlman's violin had one of its strings snapped during a performance but such is his brilliance that he managed to adapt immediately and finish his concerto to near perfection. He then turned and said his audience, 'you know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left' ". What a touching story - such a great attitude towards life.  The story was fabricated by a reporter.

Well I am not a maestro and don't expect me to improvise or adapt like Perlman.  But in reality, we all have to face change as it is thrust upon us, and try to manage it, just as the Maestro did.  There is no alternative.

Hong Kong is undergoing unprecedented changes politically, economically and socially. The transition from a British colony to a Special Administration Region of China has inevitably caused difficulties for some fulfilment for others. The changing political system is still working out its teething problems and the uncertainties continue to spark endless arguments that can be both frustrating and stimulating. The changing external and internal business environment is challenging, if not undermining many traditional and unquestioned ways of doing business and running the government. And greater demands on the government, for more resources and attention, is stressing the budget and the system.

So "what can we do with what we have".  I think it is time to go back to basics, to see what must be changed and what must be preserved.  I will in the next 10 minutes attempt to share with you my experience in the last 10 months - where change must take place.

First it is the Modus operandi we have here in Hong Kong.  A well-oiled machine must be efficient and is designed for a specific function under clearly defined external conditions - amongst others, our civil service is one of those. With all the external changes, the Civil Service is faced with change. The accountability system calls for greater transparency and information must be made more readily accessible, in contrast to the old conservative views that every piece of government information is confidential.  The principle to go by is that sunshine is the best disinfectant.  In this respect, our media friends play a pivotal role in the dissemination of information, which must be accurate and timely. The Website has also provided a most effective means for communication. With this transparency comes public scrutiny which may be hard to swallow at times.  But the gains would be the increase in efficiency as the public helps with the monitoring of service quality. Openness also applies all business.

In the government system, the traditional stove-pipe set up in the Civil Service must be overcome - more mentally than physically although both barriers should be removed - so that there is better cooperation and communication amongst departments and bureaux.  SARS outbreak has provided an excellent opportunity to tear down some of these bureaucratic barriers.  Task force has been set up as when needed, at any time and in any combination so that the best suited persons can be put on the job from any department.  When I was given the task to conduct the Amoy Gardens Investigation in four days time, the tasks did not quite fit any Civil service description, the risk is high and it is for the bureau next door - but the staff was enthusiastic, brilliant and competent. Quietly but surely change has taken place.  I believe the good work is continued through TEAM CLEAN.

The Civil service has many rules and regulations which admittedly are necessary for such a large organisation. It also has to enforce laws within the community and make sure everyone follow the rules. The important change here is that we are the facilitator or the enabler rather than just be the gate keeper.  Not to forget, that rules and regulations are to be followed; if they are no longer relevant, we change the rules through the system but there is no bending of rules. 

We need to change our attitude of "us and them": that is, with the people and private sector. The ideal situation is for the government to form partnership with its people for whatever it does it must be in the best interest of its people. So rather than attacking the government, please help to make appropriate changes. We need a pluralistic and diversified society and we should be inclusive of those who differ. We must change our confrontational and combating attitude.

Second, our financial situation has changed.

We can no longer rely on high property prices for our prosperity and with that goes the quick profit through speculation. I believe everyone deserves to have a roof over his head and housing is a basic necessity in life that should not become a speculative commodity. The correction in the property prices has caused many to suffer but this has also made property more affordable and attractive for business to come to HK. We have finally become competitive amongst our neighbours.  Without the hefty property prices, the public needs to change their expectations on government spending, because the kitty is not being replenished by windfall income from land sales. We need to optimise our spending for the most effective economic return. Public works should seek for private sector participation to harness the efficiency of private business.  We have to embrace the principle of user or polluter pays: because nothing come free.  Only when people realise there is price tag to clean air, clean water and the disposal of garbage would they begin to think what they can do to reduce cost. Everyone has to do his share in order that Hong Kong can go through the economic structural change and emerge from it with a stronger and more vibrant economy.

Third, I want to talk about our relationship with the Mainland.  To many Hong Kong people, the Mainland has been the goose which laid golden eggs since the opening up of China in the 1980's.  But people still looking for windfalls with minimal investment or simple scaling up of operations are for sure to be disappointed. Yes, China's economic growth continues to be impressive, but Hong Kong people will not be able to share in this success unless we are able add value. We must examine our management skills and governance and unless we improve ourselves we will be phased out. As the Mainland market grows in maturity and sophistication and becomes a major player in the world arena, we have to shed our arrogance and complacency towards the Mainland. This change in attitude must come with knowledge and understanding of the Mainland - how they think and what they aspire to.  It is such efforts that will bring success.

Lastly is our attitude towards learning. For the first time in many people’s life they found children wanting or begging to go to school - it was no miracle on the school’s part but thanks to the Sars break. School should be a place full of fun and challenges for children to learn. Why do we put so much emphasis on examinations - it has become an end itself. Why is learning so boring and uninspiring?  If we are brought up this way, it is no wonder that there is strong inertia against change because it means having to learn new things or rules and regulations. We must not be satisfied with going through processes, instead we must search for answers and seek solutions to problems and have the courage to change where it warrants. 

Underlying all these change of course are the values we possess that are eternal: Charity, something we have seen in abundance not only during the SARS crisis but from many community-initiated activities.  Compassion - people in Hong Kong are learning that it's not a weakness, but a strength. Corporate citizenship, in the form of rebates, concessions and other gestures by our leading companies to help ease the financial burden of our people. These companies understand only too well that the people's well being is key to the success of their business.  Integrity and professionalism, we have seen it in people dealing with SARS, and should be the guiding principles of the people gathered here tonight.  The influence of the media is surpassed by none - it impacts on the old and the young and shapes their thinking on just about every aspect of their lives.  The value list goes on. I have not forgotten the pillars of our success: the rule of law, freedom of expression, the level playing field and our clean and efficient administration.

Many of our younger people have started to ask questions about why we are what we are. These values provide the answer.  Through the worst of the SARS crisis, the community showed unity of spirit. The media reported vigilantly, for that the public expressed increased trust in them. We have witnessed the most inspiring kind of selflessness and heroism in our medical workers. Meanwhile, the various NGOs all acted with a single purpose - to help people in need at this difficult time. Hong Kong has weathered great storms before, and there is no doubt that we can do it again. 

These are tumultuous days for Hong Kong. Change can be brutal and painful, especially to those who lost their loved ones, their job or their lifetime savings. Unfortunately at such times of change the government is always the easiest target to blame. People ask me why I chose to become a minister. There is no good answer. Perhaps I see my task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that I have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what I have left.  I promise I will do my best and I urge you all for your partnership.

Thank you.