Raising the bar on cultural affairs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am


The community can be forgiven for assuming the government does not accord a high priority to culture. Although the city plays host to some world-renowned arts festivals each year, there is arguably no policy on culture. Its importance is reflected in the way it is handled within the government. For years, culture has been just one of the miscellaneous policy areas grouped under the Home Affairs Bureau, along with sports, civic affairs, youth development, building management and community relations. The other two relevant portfolios, heritage conservation and creative industries, are placed under the development and commerce bureaus respectively. The need for a revamp is evident.

To many stakeholders, the proposal by chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying to create a new bureau in charge of culture is a step that's long overdue. Under the plan, the portfolios currently scattered across different bureaus will be grouped into one. Unlike other ministers who still have to oversee two or more policy areas, the secretary for culture will be focusing on culture alone.

But not everyone has greeted this new approach with enthusiasm. In his election platform, Leung said Hong Kong was no longer a borrowed place or on borrowed time. He said it was time the government implemented a set of comprehensive cultural policies that would be relevant to our future development as a community and as a part of China. The reference to developing the city in the national context, not surprisingly, has fuelled queries about whether the cultural bureau will function as a propaganda unit, as it does on the mainland. Some have gone further, rejecting the need for a new bureau and saying the non-interventionist approach in the past has nurtured diversity and served Hong Kong equally well.

Unfortunately, speculation over the political ties of the possible new minister have fuelled scepticism. The debate has been skewed towards the choice of candidates rather than what the bureau should do. Ideally the candidate should be someone familiar with and acceptable to the arts and cultural sectors. As some critics pointed out, vision and knowledge of the arts and cultural affairs are more important than one's political background.

Hong Kong is already lagging behind the region in terms of arts and cultural development. We need someone who can lead rather than learn how to lead. A new bureau can, hopefully, provide better focus and more coherent policy. But culture cannot be engineered by government alone. The new bureau chief must have a unique vision and be able to work closely with the stakeholders. He or she will also be required to foster the growth of the arts, and defend freedom of expression and creativity.