Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen recently appeared on TV to make an apology. It was the second time for him to apologize over his extravagant overseas trips as leader.
Tsang has antagonized the public even further because he committed the same error of judgment after he ordered the formation of a special committee to look into his earlier indiscretions and to make recommendations to prevent similar incidents.
The Audit Commission also produced, at short notice, a scathing report on expenditure during his official visits abroad. The Legislative Council members are divided on what to do. The public is very angry at the way he has helped himself to some perks while still in office.
An attempt by subordinates to share some of the blame does little to get Tsang off the hook. Being the chief executive, he should know better, especially the second time around. Neither the public nor Legco seem appeased by his apology.
What will be the likely consequences of this affair on the morale of the civil service? Although a criminal offense is not yet evident, there is plenty to talk about when it comes to ethics.
After the general amnesty on corruption in 1977, the civil service turned over a new leaf. Corrupt officials became the exception rather than the rule. Yes, they were afraid of being caught by the Independent Commission Against Corruption but it was the salary increases, improved conditions and a congenial management that gave civil servants a lot to think about when tempted by graft.
Our civil service then became one of the cleanest and most efficient in Asia, if not the world. The governors before the handover were zealous in preserving this hard- earned reputation. The civil servants had a sense of pride, while leadership was strong. They may have made errors and misjudgments, but everything was conducted in good faith and not for personal gratification.
There were perks but they were for the maintenance of team spirit and seldom for personal advantage. When they were criticized, they let go of the perks.
The recent revelation indicates why the leadership is weak. The top man has been too busy gratifying himself to be bothered with his job. As a result, the proverbial buck stopped at the lower levels. Managers only heard good news and probably attended private parties and socialized with tycoons rather than visiting their officers to boost their morale and find out what bugs them.
If lower-ranking officers now feel betrayed and dejected, it is not hard to understand why.
Unless our civil service sees strong, courageous, compassionate and exemplary leadership, standards will fall to the detriment of us all.
Low morale, like idleness, is the devil's workshop and corruption will be waiting in the wings.
JS Lam served with Hong Kong police - `Asia's Finest' - for 32 years, reaching the rank of senior superintendent before retiring in 1996.