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SCMP: Hong Kong’s professions must not be protectors of their own privilege

by Philip Bowring, published in the SCMP:

Hong Kong people are familiar enough with the power as well as wealth of the city’s landed aristocracy. Less obvious is the privileged position of leaders of some of the so-called “learned professions” – lawyers, accountants, doctors and the like.

Like guilds in medieval Europe that were created to enforce standards of workmanship and training on craftsmen such as weavers and goldsmiths, they have become over time as interested in protecting themselves from competition and keeping out new ideas as in looking after their clients. The Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants cannot be accused of overly restricting membership or imposing unreasonable entry requirements. But, not for the first time, its willingness to take prompt action in cases involving prominent members accused of misconduct is in question.

On December 24, it finally announced a decision in the case of Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, until recently chairman of the Hospital Authority and previously chairman of auditing giant Ernst & Young, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and the government-allied think-tank the Bauhinia Foundation – among a myriad other posts.

Wu was found guilty of professional misconduct relating to his involvement in New China Hong Kong Group, which collapsed in 1999. It then took 14 years for the institute to investigate and finally come to a decision on what, on the face of things, was not a very complicated case. It did so only after Wu had stepped down in November from the Hospital Authority and announced it on a day which ensured minimal media coverage. Wu received his top appointments despite the cloud hanging over his professional integrity.

It is better in principle that professional bodies police themselves rather than having governments impose themselves. But the Wu case leaves one asking whether anything has improved since the then Society of Accountants failed to act against Price Waterhouse in the case of the Carrian Group collapse. Price Waterhouse was Carrian’s auditor and its senior partner became managing director of Carrian.

Another accountant long showered with official appointments has also recently been in the news – Marvin Cheung Kin-tung. A former chairman of auditors KPMG and of the Society of Accountants (the previous name of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants), he is currently chairman of the Airport Authority, a member of several boards including HSBC and Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, and a former Executive Council member.

Cheung is rightly engaged in the debate over the third runway – though one might feel that coming from the private sector he would expect it to be funded commercially rather than from the public trough. But it was surprising to see someone in such a position with a public body make a big media splash defending the inordinate land lease privileges of the Hong Kong Golf Club.

For sure, as president of that club, he wants those privileges maintained. But his dual roles are another classic example of how some private-sector leaders have become installed deep inside government and can influence public affairs for private advantage. His comments on golf have also drawn attention to the existence of a private course on Airport Authority land, the little-known nine-hole course close to Terminal 2.

The elite golfers who cling to the claim that Hong Kong needs three courses at Fanling and spurn alternatives such as on Kau Sai Chau might get some sympathy if they ever used their position in or near government to spend real money on public sporting facilities, particularly for schools. The abysmal standards of fitness of young people, as revealed by recent surveys, is as much due to the lack of facilities as parental obsession with book learning and fears that sport leads to injuries. Public needs are not met by building a showpiece stadium.

Now we are told not to exercise as the air is too foul. Endless government expressions of worry about the costs of health care are nothing but hypocrisy until it invests in the prevention of disease – starting with clean air and opportunities for physical activity.

Another contribution to public health – and one with no cost at all – would be to take on the doctors’ lobby and allow foreign-trained doctors (and nurses) to practise here.

As revealed this past week, mortality rates in several public hospitals are far higher than they should be in a city with Hong Kong’s wealth and technical abilities. Shortages of beds, particularly in intensive care units, is one reason but staff shortages are even more to blame. Yet Hong Kong’s political system, which enshrines every principle of vested interest, ensures that it cannot easily benefit from foreign-trained doctors.

High-quality professional service is a major part of Hong Kong’s appeal. But it will not be sustained in the longer run if the professions are protectors of privilege rather than standards, and their prominent members are seen as part of the small group of mutual back-scratchers who turn up on every major private-sector board and government statutory and advisory body. The corporate state is the antithesis of Hong Kong’s spirit of entrepreneurship and social mobility – and of independent professions.

12 Jan 2014

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