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January 2nd, 2012:

Incompetent , Inept Government leadership – ah yes then there is the pollution and the lack of Air Quality Standards that would block imminent major infrastructure white elephants

Tamar just a symptom of deeper illness plaguing HK

Scholar Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s essays from decades ago offer a dose of surprising insights that the city’s ailing bureaucracy should heed

Tom Holland Monitor
Jan 03, 2012

Browsing in a second-hand bookshop last week, I came across a slim volume of essays by the late Cyril Northcote Parkinson.

A professor of history at the National University of Singapore and a prolific author, Parkinson is best remembered today for his eponymous law which states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This phenomenon is familiar to everyone used to working to a deadline. It may sound paradoxical, but as any journalist can testify, it is far harder to write a 1,000-word feature if the deadline is next Tuesday than if it is at 4.30 this afternoon – even if the final article turns out exactly the same.

In a 1955 essay, Parkinson extrapolated from this simple axiom to explain why bureaucracies and their workload tend to expand independently of their actual output.

As an example, he cited Britain’s Royal Navy, wherein the number of civil administrators increased by 80 per cent between 1914 and 1928 even though the size of the fleet fell by 70 per cent. Eventually, Parkinson forecast, the navy’s admirals would exceed the number of its ships – a prediction realised in 2008.

In addition to the original essay, the collection I picked up last week contains eight other pieces dating from the 1950s, some of which have much to teach us about Hong Kong in 2012. For example, in his essay Injelititis, Parkinson explained whymediocre people manage to rise to the top of so many organisations.

The problem arises with the promotion of an executive who combines high concentrations of both incompetence and jealousy. Neither quality is rare, but together they can be lethal. The incompetent man, failing to accomplish anything himself, sets out to make sure that no one else achieves anything either, lest he ends up looking bad.

Anyone with genuine ability is ruthlessly eliminated, and “soundness” – a willingness to conform – rather than talent, becomes the criterion for promotion. Smugness supplants drive as the most obvious characteristic of corporate culture and the organisation soon sinks into paralysis, then ultimately coma.

Then there is the essay in which Parkinson examines governments around the world and concludes that the decision-making power of a cabinet tends to be inversely proportional to its size.

By this standard, Hong Kong’s 34-member Executive Council ranks alongside the cabinet of the former Soviet Union for effectiveness: It exists only for show.

But following last week’s news that the plumbing of the Hong Kong government’s newly opened HK$5.5 billion Tamar complex is infested with Legionnaires’ disease, the essay that really caught my eye was the one on organisations that build themselves grandiose new headquarters.

Parkinson noted that active, effective institutions tend to operate from haphazard, makeshift premises. There is plenty of evidence to bear this out. The first electronic computer was built in a garden shed; the first nuclear reactor in a disused squash court.

As Parkinson explained “During a period of exciting discovery or progress, there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters.”

Any organisation that has the time and resources to design and build itself lavish new headquarters is clearly suffering from hubris and is no longer focused on what it ought to be doing. As Parkinson argued: “Planning is a symptom of decay.”

There is no shortage of examples to back this assertion.

Parkinson cites the glories of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, whose construction coincided with the Reformation, which saw much of Northern Europe shrug off papal rule, forever diminishing the influence of the Catholic Church.

Next there was the Palace of Versailles, built just as the French monarchy suffered a series of crushing military defeats in the War of the Spanish Succession, followed by a devastating financial crisis when the Mississippi Bubble burst. It never recovered.

Then there was New Delhi, possibly the ultimate symbol of imperial hubris, built by the British as the eternal capital of their empire in India, and completed less than 10 years before India’s independence in 1947.

The Tamar complex fits this pattern. Consulting engineers have long complained that officials failed woefully to meet the government’s own standards in commissioning its extravagant new headquarters. Now with the Legionnaire’s infestation in a building just three months old, we have evidence of incompetence on a monumental scale.

Parkinson could have warned them – and in fact he did. Tellingly, the flyleaf of the second-hand book I picked up last week is stamped with: “This book is the property of the Commerce and Industry Department, Fire Brigade Building, Hong Kong.”

Clearly, our officials now feel they are above such warnings.

Clean-up at Tamar as more bacteria found
Emily Tsang
2:28pm, Jan 03, 2012
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Water samples from taps in the kitchen of the staff canteen at the new government headquarters and the Legislative Council dining hall have tested positive for the bacteria causing potentially deadly legionnaire’s disease.

Preliminary test results also found evidence of the legionella pneumophila in private washrooms of the Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Professor K.C. Chan, Secretary for Labour Matthew Cheung, Secretary for the Civil Service Denise Yue, and Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng and Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong.

This was disclosed by the Centre for Health Protection which said on Monday that several bureaus, which it did not name at the time, as well as the office of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, were affected.

The results came from nine of 31 samples taken from various sites in the newly-occupied building after education chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung was diagnosed with the disease and the bug was found in water from a tap in his private office toilet.

The offices are in the East and West wings of the Tamar complex, between the ninth and 24th floors.

The canteen is on the first floor and a sample from the food counter of a bakery on the second-floor podium also tested positive,.

The announcement came as disinfecting of the complex continued while Tsang and senior officials returned to their offices on Tuesday morning

Federation of Civil Service Unions chairman Leung Chau-ting expressed concerns over the health of more than 10,000 civil servants who have moved to the new headquarters since September.

We still don’t know which part of the complex is safe,” Leung said. “The government should disclose where they have done tests, which part [of the complex] is contaminated and which part is clean, so that the staff can feel more secure,” he said.

“We advise all staff to stay away from water taps for the time being, and to drink from distilled water if possible.”

The Legco secretariat said it would prepare distilled water for legislators to drink.

The tests began after Suen was diagnosed with the disease on December 21 and the bug was found in water from a tap in his private office toilet. The level of bacteria was later found to be 14 times the safe level.

Suen recovered after 12 days in hospital.

‘Trustworthy’ religious /vow ? Tsang


Hong Kong’s Tsang Says Rising Risks Mean Tax-Cut Is ‘Hard’

January 03, 2012, 2:46 AM EST

By Sophie Leung and Marco Lui

Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) — Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said that rising economic risks make itdifficult to fulfil his 2007 pledge to further cut corporate taxes before his term expires in six months.

“It’s hard to meet my vow to cut corporate tax,” Tsang said in comments broadcast by Commercial Radio Hong Kong today. “After the global financial crisis, we may see the emergence of a worldwide recession. So it’s hard to have room to do such a thing right now.”

Reducing levies could restore Hong Kong’s edge against regional rivals such as Singapore as pollution and waiting lists at international schools make the city less attractive to international companies. Singapore narrowed the corporate tax rate gap with Hong Kong to 50 basis points in 2010 from 10 percentage points in 1999 to attract global businesses.

“It’s understandable that he prefers to keep things unchanged, as the government sees the looming risk of an economic downturn,” said Raymond So, dean of the business school at Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong.

Tsang’s term ends June 30. Singapore today reported its second economic contraction in three quarters, highlighting the pressure that a global slowdown is putting on small Asian economies exposed to international trade and capital flows.

Pollution, Schools

In Singapore, which typically announces its budget in February, the government is yet to indicate any plans for further reductions in corporate taxes. Hong Kong cut taxes for companies by half a percentage point to 16.5 percent in 2008 to fend off the threat from Singapore. Tsang had pledged to bring the rate to 15 percent.

Hong Kong’s schools have failed to keep up with record numbers of applications. In a survey of American Chamber of Commerce members in May, 63 percent said some executives are driven away by the lack of student places.

The city’s air pollution is linked to thousands of avoidable deaths, the University of Hong Kong said last year, with many due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, according to Thach Thuan-quoc, an honorary assistant professor.

“Some international companies may opt for Singapore over Hong Kong because of pollution and education concerns, but Hong Kong still has an edge in its proximity to China,” said So, of the management college.

In June last year, Tsang said “You got me on that,” when asked in a Bloomberg Television interview about his tax-cut pledge. “I’m still trying to find the opportunity” to meet the promise, Tsang said then in Melbourne. “At the moment, the Hong Kong people feel we should not reduce corporate profits tax and while it was feasible and acceptable in 2007, it is not acceptable now.”

–Editors: Paul Panckhurst, Sunil Jagtiani

To contact the reporters on this story: Marco Lui in Hong Kong at; Sophie Leung in Hong Kong at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Panckhurst at