As the former head of the business and services promotion unit of the financial secretary’s office and director-general of InvestHK, Mike Rowse knows a thing or two about pursuing a successful career in the public sector. While much of the media focus has been on his controversial handling of the Harbour Fest in 2003 – for which he’s been officially vindicated – the true story of this Brit-turned-Chinese citizen remains an inspiring tale of fortitude and courage, traits that have helped him navigate the often murky waters of Hong Kong’s political environment. Rowse sat down with Rick Gangwani to discuss his career, from his early days as a journalist, to his time at the ICAC anti-corruption watchdog, the government, and, more recently, as the search director for recruitment agency Stanton Chase.
Tell us about your transition from private to public sector and back again.
I was not a conventional public servant. While I did transit from journalism, I was never a typical bureaucrat. I was always the one they looked for if there was something unconventional to do. So the move back to the private sector was not as huge a transition as it would have been if I were a traditional bureaucrat.
How did becoming a Chinese citizen change your outlook?
It's the other way around. It was part of my natural development. I went around the world selling Hong Kong, but I was doing it as a foreigner. I figured I could be a lot more convincing if people saw that I bought the product myself. I wanted to tell people that I was from Hong Kong and that I was proud of my city.
How do you deal with bureaucracy?
Manage it. When I was on the inside, I was trying to bear in mind the object of the exercise. The object should not be to cover your own [back] - it should be to improve exhibition facilities, to boost tourism, to get street lights to a village on Lamma. Keep in mind what the objective is and work towards that objective. I think for some people, the process and the procedures become the objective itself.
Did working within government procedures ever frustrate you?
I managed to cope, simply by not being afraid to state my case and by fighting my corner. People tend to make room for someone who takes responsibility.
What was it like working for the government in Hong Kong?
I think the joy was the public service. In every area, there's one thing in common: If you do your job well, the community benefits.
As for drawbacks, I think that for the vast bulk of my career, there weren't any, because the joy overwhelmed them. I'm not sure if that's still true in today's more politicised environment. I hope our young civil servants will still find that the joys exceed the frustrations.
What are the differences in working for the government then and now?
The big thing was certainty and stability. The government never ran out of money. If you're a family guy, that has its attractions. In the private sector, you can get a big bonus. If there's a downturn, you might not. I think the joys [of public service] have diminished. Maybe for the best and the brightest, the private sector would seem more attractive.
What's your advice to those eyeing a career in the public sector?
I may not be the best person to give that advice because the climate has changed. There's no government party, so everyone gets their name in the paper from criticising the government. No matter how well you do the job, ministers will take the credit if it works, while you get the blame if it doesn't. One has to be very dedicated and much more media-savvy.
As you're now in recruitment, what's the outlook for the local job market?
Things look very good. For companies operating on the mainland and Hong Kong, there's still a lot of demand for expat talent. Remember, we're China's international financial sector, and we're directly linked to an economy that's still growing.
What first prompted you to then join the government?
After about three years [at the ICAC], my wife said “We’ve got two small children now, and the public sector is good and steady.” I came back from a short holiday and looked at myself at the mirror and thought: “Could I really do this job for the next 25 years?”
I then consulted my colleagues, who said that the best job in the government was AO (administrative officer), but that I would never get it.
Of course, no one likes a challenge more than me. So I took the civil service exam, and I passed. Shortly after I became an AO.
How did you go from AO to working for the financial secretary?
There were a few steps in-between. Prior to getting that job I was transferred to Information – not Information services, but the Information unit of the Policy Bureau.
From there I went into Finance Branch, where I always wanted to be. It was wonderful, because Finance Branch is not about money, it’s about power. I had a great time there
I was also quite lucky, because I got on with Donald [Tsang]. I saved him a couple of times from things that might have gone wrong. We did a tremendous job on the defence cost agreement with the British, but the success came too late to affect promotion slots for the year. I saw the [promotions] list, and my name wasn’t on it.
Donald said I was bound to get something the following year, but I told him that by that time everyone would have forgotten.
The next year however I got promoted to staff grade B.
Was the willingness to take on “unconventional” tasks part of the reason for your success in government?
Well it depends if you think that Harbour Fest was a success.
Remember, I was selected to be the sponsor of the event and to be the pilot of the economic re-launch programme because it wasn’t conventional, because there was no precedent for it. This is message to be gleaned from my career, that I was always the guy who bit the bullet.
I simply did what I always did and had complete coverage. But I think that [by then] the nature of people had changed, and the nature of politics had changed. So instead of my getting support from other officials, as I once did, most spent their time and energy running away as fast as they could.