George Fung-On, October 24, 1921 - February 16, 2007
February 25, 2007
George Clarence Fung-On, former Minister of the Public Service and Chairman of the Public Service Commission, died on February 16, aged 85.
The British Guiana Civil Service that George Fung-On joined as a clerk sixty-five years ago was very different from the Public Service over which he presided as chairman of the Public Service Commission up to six weeks before his death.
In the 1940s, the Chief Secretary's Office was the centre of the entire administrative system since nearly all matters of importance had to be channelled through it for the governor's deliberation. Invariably an English civil servant, the chief secretary was primus inter pares in the triumvirate that included the financial secretary and the attorney general in charge of the colony's affairs under the governor. Beneath them were heads of departments and other senior civil servants, also English, who constituted a cloistral caste of mandarins.
The Chief Secretary's Office - commonly known as CSO - located imposingly in the upper storey of the Public Buildings (now Parliament Building), was the sanctum sanctorum at the vortex of the hierarchy of the bureaucracy, and only slowly were a few low-level locals admitted thereto. Not only was George Fung-On one of those few, but he was destined to spend almost his entire career during the colonial era immured in the CSO, accumulating experience, becoming indispensable and rising effortlessly with the effluxion of time.
Largely because he never served long enough in a line ministry, appointment to the rank of permanent secretary eluded him. His combined service in the CSO and later the PSC, apart from making him a master of the minutiae needed to administer a complex bureaucracy, however, earned him the secretaryship to the PSC, a tad lower than the position of PS. It was in the Public Service Commission that the constitution invested supreme control of personnel in the state bureaucracy. Becoming chairman at age 82, therefore, was an exciting climax to George Fung-On's life-long love affair with the civil service.
Despite the service's low rate of pay and slow rate of promotion, the notion of belonging to an √©lite and sharing in power over the hoi polloi was an exhilarating experience which imparted inexplicably high prestige to officials. But the quotidian duties inside the CSO were repetitive and unimaginative. They consisted largely of hoisting huge piles of files from one desk in the registry to form piles on the desks of higher officials for decisions to be made by the mighty chief secretary. Zealous juniors would think nothing of working on Saturday afternoons, Sunday mornings and holidays to impress the chief.
Sanctimonious, serious and disinclined to smile at subordinates, the little tribe of troglodytes who held sway there inculcated the most stultifying customs of careerism: obsession with picayune increments of pay; jealous protection of pension rights; meticulous calculations of seniority and service; catching the eye of superiors to gain accelerated promotion; and, most of all, blocking competitors for these sacred and precious prizes.
Junior civil servants in the CSO were not meant to think; their duties were to master regulations and memorise precedents in order to apply them to every new situation. Investigations were excruciatingly granular, responses were gradual and innovativeness was discountenanced. Here were the origins of the organisational ossification that afflicts the civil service up to the present day. It was dangerous to drink too deeply at the wellsprings of such mores or to linger too long within the walls of the CSO!
The British Guiana Civil Service Association (CSA) in the 1940s started to struggle against the CSO's administrative tyranny. Since then, conflict between the CSO and the CSA seemed to have been transmuted into combat between the present day Public Service Ministry (PSM) on the one hand, and the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU), on the other.
It must have been an accident of history that the path that led George Fung-On from his quondam lowly position of a Class Six Clerk in the CSO to the lofty ranks of Minister of the PSM and Chairman of the PSC would also bring him into collision with the present-day GPSU. Describing the Minister as the administration's "firewall on public servants' salaries," the PSU blamed his blunt speech and obstinate style for the collapse of negotiations and the precipitation of the eight-week public service strike in 1999.
So intense was the antipathy between the two sides that a band of protesters marching past Mr Fung-On's New Garden Street home at the height of the 1999 strike threw a lit candle and rag into his yard, tossed a bottle at the gate, and hurled invectives, shouting that the minister "must go." Unfazed, he unflinchingly stood his ground and continued to inveigh against the PSU and deride their annual demands for higher pay.
As recently as December 2005 when the administration decided to pay a seven per cent increase in salaries to public servants, George Fung-on, even as PSC chairman, lauded the increase, declaring it as an example of "overreach," and stating:
"The Government is giving more than what the Private Sector is giving. We are hearing of offers being made of two and three per cent increases by some companies. So, Government in that sense has overreached itself by giving an increase which is not consistent with what is being offered by Private Sector agencies."
George Clarence Fung-On was born on October 24, 1921 in Kitty, Georgetown, the son of a baker and the second of thirteen children. He grew up in Plaisance Village on the East Coast Demerara, worshipped at St Paul's Anglican Church and attended the primary school there. He never went to secondary school, studying for examinations privately through correspondence courses and so obtaining his junior and senior Cambridge certificates. He also passed the inter LLB (Lond) as an external student, earned a diploma in economics and public administration from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and attended a seminar at the Institute for Organisation Management in the USA.
He started work as a primary school teacher in St Aidan's Anglican School at Wismar. Accepted into the civil service in 1942, he served mainly in the Chief Secretary's Office and the Public Service Ministry whence he attained the appointment of secretary to PSC in 1972, until retirement in 1976.
He then spent several years as executive officer of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry before being appointed by President Cheddi Jagan as Minister of the Public Service in the People's Progressive Party/Civic cabinet in 1992. A member of the National Assembly, he embraced the ministry with messianic zeal, ever mindful of the models with which he was familiar and remained at his post for nearly nine years until the elections of 2001.
After demitting the ministry, he served briefly as a member of the Public Service Appellate Tribunal before being appointed Chairman of the Public Service Commission in January 2004. Questioned about his ability to discharge his duties impartially in light of his having been a political minister, George Fung-On smilingly asserted that his "wealth of experience" could only benefit the commission. By virtue of that new position, he was able also to extend that wealth of experience to the Police Service Commission, the Guyana Defence Force Commissions Board and the Judicial Service Commission, of which he also became a concurrent member.
In the end, George Fung-On, the inveterate bureaucrat, came to admit that the PSC's dominant role in the service was anachronistic. While still Chairman only a year ago in March 2006, he suggested that the service would function more effectively and efficiently if permanent secretaries were given the opportunity to make more decisions in their respective ministries. For too long, he felt, the "remote control" exercised by the PSC determined who should be employed, disciplined and dismissed while the permanent secretaries - the responsible heads - had no say in these matters. Colonial practice, Fung-On said, should now be abandoned. He explained:
"Although I am Chairman, I still don't think that the Commission should have that much authority over the Ministries. The Permanent Secretaries should be able to say who is best suited for the various posts and therefore should be the hiring and firing authority‚Ä¶That is why the private sector is always said to be more efficient than the public sector because even a junior manager can fire an employee if it is warranted."
Having worked briefly after retirement as CEO of the GCCI, George Fung-On was well aware of the vast gulf between the practices of the public sector vis-√ -vis the private sector. But administration and management were always more than merely hiring and firing, although these were the means by which colonials controlled the old civil service.
A modest, unpretentious man, he was a devout Anglican throughout his life, serving as a regular and respected Lay Reader, officiating at the eucharist and often delivering homilies to the congregation at Christ Church. He was also a member of the vestry committee, chairman of the Diocesan Council's Finance Committee and a synodal delegate. As a member of the Chinese (later renamed Cosmos) Sports Club, he played cricket as a reliable wicket keeper-batsman up to the (Northcote Cup) first division level.
Despite admitting the need for change, he remained a stickler for the standards that he inculcated decades ago in the CSO. George Fung-On may well have considered himself Guyana's last mandarin.