The issue of conflict of interest arises yet again, with the announcement today in Hong Kong that Lam Woon-kong, a gentleman with whom I have no quarrel personally, is going to remain as Exco Convenor, while at the same time remaining as Chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission ... but only for another six months to end concerns about his independence.
Surely, bizarre? If there are concerns about independence now, they are going to remain for another six months. And if everyone has lived with it for six months, then why can they not live with it for a further two or three years? To say, as Mr Lam has done, that it would be "irresponsible" to quit either post abruptly is a red herring. As is the statement "... for the next six months, I will continue to carry out my duties ... and be vigilant to avoid any real or perceived conflicts in servicing my dual role." Come on, Mr Lam, you have always struck me as being an intelligent man, but perhaps you haven't noticed that public trust in utterances by Government servants, former or present, are not being treated as carrying much conviction at present. I am sure that, personally, you will make every effort to abide by your statement, but the media and Legco will be looking over your shoulder every millimeter of the way to ensure you do - with the risk that they will just drag up every little thing.
But that, of itself, isn't the issue. It is the whole subject of conflict of interest. If there is a potential conflict why accept the second job in the first place - or more worrying perhaps did you really think there was no conflict?
A few years ago - after I had retired, I found myself in a situation where an organisation with which I was already involved was being audited by the firm I spend a lot of time with now. Under a normal timetable, I would have risen to a position of greater influence within that organisation, so I raised the potential conflict issue. It was clear from the audit firm's perspective that I was conflicted, despite the fact that the organisation involved was prepared to state I had nothing to do with approving the accounts or was in any way involved. I therefore had a choice to make - which I took - and the fact I am still with the audit firm tells you which way I decided. I was also travelling a lot, as I still do now, so in more ways than one it was the right decision to take, but conflicts can arise in what might be the most innocuous of circumstances - and you cannot be too careful.
We live in a world today where corporate governance matters. Where regulators, and other watchdogs are all concerned about accountability, management and conflicts. And the way they are dealt with in an organisation reflects the culture of that organization. I am the last person who should be casting stones, but isn't Mr Diamond being blamed for setting a culture in Barclays that led others to say- if this the way they do it at the top, then it must be alright to do it at the bottom.
If Mr. Lam says "... it's okay for me to be conflicted for six more months, and then I will stop", so it must be alright for others to do the same. Isn't it a bit like a pregnant lady saying I will be pregnant for six more months and then I think I'll stop being pregnant?
I think the usage of "irresponsible" in the argument is itself irresponsible