Well for once I am sorry I missed “Straight Talk”, a TVB programme on which crumbs from the upper crust are obsequiously interviewed. Chief Executive Carrie Lam was the star on Tuesday, and warmed by the studio lights and the atmosphere of fawning adoration she was interestingly revealing.

When she thought she was retiring last year (you remember that bit, before CY Leung was promoted to a non-job in Beijing) she discovered, apparently, that she “could not afford to buy a flat in the urban area”.

carrie lam policy address
Carrie Lam. Photo: In-Media.

She could afford “only” a three bedroomed flat in the New Territories, costing $15 million. Unfortunately for the vendor of this palace Ms Lam then discovered that as the Chief Executive she would have the free use of Government House for five years, so the deal fell through.

Meanwhile – prepare a tissue for this bit – “When I quit the civil service and joined the principal officials, my lump sum pension was only a mere $7 million,” she said. A mere $7 million. Did angels weep?

Let us leave aside the possibility that a great many people in Hong Kong would be deliriously happy to have $7 million. Let us leave aside also the observation of some close observers of the local real estate scene, that you can actually get a three-bedroom flat in the urban area for $15 million. Maybe the lady is fussy.

What viewers may have missed here is that Ms Lam’s pension entitlement is a complicated matter. When she quit the civil service she was 50. It is usually considered inconsiderate, if not rude, to reveal ladies’ ages but Ms Lam’s date of birth is the first item on her Wikipedia page so that cat is already out of the bag.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam.

The official minimum retirement age for civil servants under the Old Scheme (the arrangements for more recent recruits are less generous) is 55. So until you get to that age you are not entitled to a pension in the sense of regular monthly payments at all.

You are however allowed what the Civil Service Bureau calls “commutation”, in which you exchange some of your future pension entitlement for a lump sum now. This goes up to 25% – again the later arrangements are different – so that is where the $7 million came from. In other words it was not Ms Lam’s “pension”, in the usual sense of the word. It was the result of cashing in a quarter of the pension early.

cy leung chun-ying
File photo: In-Media.

At the end of CY Leung’s first term Ms Lam was 55 (consider my excuse repeated) and so she could expect her pension to start. As the CSB web site puts it in impeccable bureaucratese: “Under the current pension suspension policy, if a pensioner is re-employed to the Government, e.g. as a non-civil service contract staff, the payment of his/her pension may be suspended during his/her service of re-employment unless and until he/she has reached the applicable normal or prescribed retirement age under the relevant pension legislations.

Ms Lam is now receiving the pension, and the CE’s salary. This is a fairly mind-blowing thought. It used to be said that the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR received more than any national leader except the Prime Minister of Singapore. Have we now overtaken Singapore in this dubious steeplechase?

Well no doubt Ms Lam has earned her good fortune, and may consider it a poor reward for the abuse which will come her way if she keeps parroting the Liaison Office line. Still I think she should consider carefully before giving the impression that she deserves sympathy for her housing problems.

Government House
Government House. Photo: GovHK.

Ms Lam owns no property in Hong Kong because, as the SCMP put it, “she had been living in government quarters since becoming a civil servant.” In other words between 1980 and 2007 she was spared the need to pay for accommodation at all. She was also entitled to an education allowance for the kids, and the free medical and dental services provided for civil servants. In the later stages of her career she could also save on travelling expenses by lavishly abusing a government car, as all Hong Kong’s senior civil servants do.

Then we have five years as a top political appointee, which is generously rewarded and also attracts a great deal of free food. If Ms Lam is short of a bob or two she hasn’t been concentrating. I notice also that the question of property in the UK, where her family lives, did not come up. A pity.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.