Leung Chun Ying

Broken trust

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am

Think hard and see if you can come up with the name of a political leader who confessed to failing the people before he even formally assumed office. Leung Chun-ying took over as our new chief executive yesterday. But, in the preceding week, he apologised three times to the people for having failed them so badly that he lost their trust.

How would a society where leaders are democratically elected react to something like that? Would a large enough election mandate, or a forgiving public, be enough for such a leader to survive? Hard to say, since there are no recent examples to go by. But it does not matter since Leung was not popularly elected.

When leaders are not popularly elected, it becomes trickier for them to ask the people for forgiveness. Besides, forgiveness can only start when the wrongdoer reveals all the facts. The people need to know the whole truth before they can decide if a leader deserves forgiveness. Leung made the classic mistake of not telling the whole truth all at once.

The media had to dig it out in bits and pieces - a process that encourages speculation and rumour. If Leung had come clean from the start, he could have avoided the embarrassment of having to make a public apology every time a truth emerged.

But it is no longer a case of how much of the truth Leung has told. The matter has now spiralled to whether our new leader is a liar. That accusation, if proven, is far more explosive than illegal structures. US president Bill Clinton underwent a humiliating impeachment process in the US Congress not for his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky itself, but for having lied about it under oath.

Not telling the whole truth and lying are two different things. Hongkongers may want to forgive Leung for his illegal structures, if only for the sake of moving on. But it is quite another thing to forgive a leader who looked the people in the eye and lied.

Celebrations for the 15th anniversary of the handover called for a script of patriotic pride fuelled by the visit of the nation's top leader and a trouble-free transfer of power to a squeaky-clean Leung after the scandals that plagued his predecessor and election rival. But it did not exactly play out that way. Protesters slammed China's treatment of dissidents and mocked Leung, demanding that he step down.

I asked Donald Tsang Yam-kuen exactly a week ago if his successor was facing a political crisis before he had even started work. Tsang did not answer directly, but urged Hongkongers to give Leung a chance to do his job. The trouble is that Leung is an extremely polarising person whom you either like or loathe. Those who loathe him are already gloating, claiming that the evasive way he handled his illegal structures proves he really is the wolf who cannot be trusted, as they had warned.

Leung is indeed facing a political crisis as he starts his leadership. That is a fact. Dirt has finally stuck to the man who was so good at deflecting it. The trust factor has returned as his Achilles' heel. And his opponents are nipping at it. That's politics. Forget about his campaign promises of fixing the wealth gap and housing. Leung's urgent first task is to salvage his reputation by winning back the public's trust.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com