Can John Lee learn from Carrie Lam’s mistakes and rebuild public trust?

Lam had plans to renovate the kitchen and make it bigger, and Lee supported her. In fact, he is so supportive of the idea that he is ready to triple the original price tag so the kitchen can accommodate three additional deputy secretaries on top of two new bureaus. That means 13 more political appointees and 57 civil service posts.

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Hong Kong’s Election Committee picks John Lee as city’s next chief executive in one-man race

Lee is obviously keen to start a new chapter, but there are many lessons to be learned and pages he can borrow from his former boss’ book. And there is no better place to start than from early on in Lam’s administration.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah was appointed six months after Lam took office and brought trouble on the day she took the job. Cheng was found to have several illegal extensions at her three-storey home, and she later revealed there were more at two other properties.

One would have thought that after illegal structures brought down one chief executive candidate, considered to the Beijing-blessed choice, the appointee and appointer would have been more politically aware. Lee had front-row seats to what transpired and the damage that was done. So he ought to be aware that the process of populating the enlarged kitchen with able, heat-resistant bodies must be done with thorough consideration.

There may no longer be opposition lawmakers to put officials on the spot, but public perception remains important. Rebuilding public trust begins with taking the people seriously.

At the end of the day, a leader must be able to persuade and galvanise the people to follow their lead. To do that, one must inspire confidence and earn the people’s trust. Anything that takes away from that should not be part of the team.

No one is above the law and too good for politics, after all. Being part of the governing team means being in the business of politics. Lee must not repeat the mistakes Lam made by being tone-deaf to public opinion.

He should also avoid Lam’s sleep patterns. She has long worn her sleep-deprived lifestyle as a badge of honour. Being a hands-on leader is a virtue, but not if one is sleep-deprived, which more often than not impairs the judgment of mortals.

There is a time to retreat and a time to be visible. Lam eventually discovered how best to handle the fifth wave of the pandemic – by personally hosting daily media sessions at the height of the crisis. That was the right move and one that demonstrated her leadership. She made herself accessible and visible, and finally gave prominence to public perception.

And she wore a mask because she finally understood that people did not need to see and feel her emotions. Rather, making an effort to connect with them and understanding their feelings is what really matters.

Lee met state leaders in Beijing last week in a “closed-loop” system, which meant he couldn’t go out and meet others during his time in the capital. But now he has his letter of appointment and can have outside contact again, he needs to start hitting the streets and connecting with the ordinary people he is tasked to lead.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA


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