Over the years, a fine, though informal, tradition has been observed by retired senior government officials: they refrained from commenting on public policies to avoid being seen as being meddlesome by their successors.
So, it is intriguing that several former officials have, in recent days, broken their silence one after another to comment on the political appointments row in unprecedented language.
Among the first in firing the shots was former secretary for the civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping, whose criticisms were soon echoed by former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and former treasury secretary John Chan Cho-chak.
Wong, now teaching public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he fell off his chair when he first heard principal officials coming to the defense of undersecretaries who were holding foreign passports. In a nutshell, he called it a case of political stupidity.
Ip, poised to run in the legislative election, wasted no time in saying she thought it was a misjudgment while Chan, a KMB director and Jockey Club chairman, blamed the government for being politically insensitive.
The seemingly out-of-the-way comments by the trio, who had all served in the civil service for a long time, are reminiscent of the ill-feelings that administrative officers harbored towards the accountability system when it was first introduced by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
The recent appointment of undersecretaries and political assistants is only an extension of the system that, in the beginning, was confined to the principal officials.
Questions over issues such as work allocation, asked six years ago when the system was first put in place, are being repeated.
It is no secret that it has taken a while for senior managers in the civil service, who used to be the bosses of their policy areas, to get accustomed to the new setup. It may take even longer this time around for administrative officers to accept the undersecretaries and political assistants in view of their relatively junior backgrounds and regardless of their potential, which will come to light with the passage of time.
Paul Chan Chi-yuen, for example, is the youngest to be appointed in the latest exercise, and he is 28. Thought to be earning less than HK$30,000 a month as a senior research assistant and part-time lecturer prior to his appointment as political assistant to Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat- ngok, Chan will now earn no less than HK$103,340, making him the envy of his new colleagues.
But it would be improper to jump to the conclusion that the arrangement is unfair because of this. While such appointments are new in our civil service, they are not so in our private sector, where promising candidates are often put on the fast track for key roles.
Wong may be too narrow-minded in asserting the new system was introduced to strengthen the governments ability to deal with lawmakers, the media and the public.
It is more strategic than that, being part of the governments strategy to help Hong Kong nurture a pool of leaders, some of whom may become our future chief executives.
It will be important to bear in mind this strategic thinking as the current row runs its course. It will also be necessary for members of the civil service to change their mindsets if the leadership training strategy is to succeed.
It is obvious that the pan-democrats are not putting this controversy in the right focus, with their leaders Albert Ho Chun-yan and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee warning that lawmakers may exercise their special powers to force the government to reveal the appointees pay terms. It would be more relevant and in our greater interest to look into the criteria behind their selection.
Should we direct more of our attention to making sure the appointees possess the potential and are wisely chosen?