Right from wrong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 1997, 12:00am

Ido not wish to add to the embarrassment of the urban councillor who supposed it was not necessary to declare his extensive interests in the food and booze business because they were already known to 'everybody'.

No doubt this is an easy mistake for an inexperienced councillor to make. He will know better next time.

Floating about in this gentleman's defence of his conduct, though, was one mark which raised wider issues. The whole fuss, opined the errant councillor, was only a result of complaints by colleagues of a more democratic disposition who objected in principle to appointees, of whom he was one.

The point which needs to be made as firmly as possible is that this may or may not be true, but it is simply not relevant.

If councillors are required to declare their interests, or for that matter if company chairmen are required to declare their previous convictions, or if applicants for teaching posts are asked to list their qualifications, then it is the responsibility of the person concerned to do so accurately.

If an accurate account is not provided then that is a clear breach of the rules.

How the matter comes to light makes no difference. It does not matter if the discrepancy is reported by a spurned lover, dragged up by an ambitious reporter, whistle-blown by a disgruntled employee or slipped to the media by a political opponent.

A man may be betrayed by his wife, his confessor, his secretary or his mistress. The fact remains that the rules are the rules, right is right and wrong is still wrong.

We do not find convicted criminals asking for a light sentence on the grounds that the case only came to light because a personal enemy reported it to the police.

In moments of public controversy, as in football, it is generally a good idea to play the ball, not the man, particularly if, as in the case of our councillor, there is no man present. Actually, we do not know who landed him in it.

Another good - or rather bad - example came in a letter the other week. It opened with a reference to 'Briton Emily Lau'.

What was this, I wondered. Had someone's parents bestowed on them an unusual combination of first names? Was this an attempt to launch a new honorific to spare us all the choice between Ms and Mrs? Not at all. It seemed that the writer was anxious to establish from the beginning that Emily Lau, with whom he disagreed, had a British passport. Actually, at the risk of appearing pedantic I must point out that this does not in itself make you 'a Briton'.

On the other hand, nobody who has met Ms Lau could have any reasonable doubts that she is Chinese, and she certainly meets the official requirements of the Chinese Government. So the 'Briton' label could be considered both irrelevant and misleading.

Oddly enough, we never discovered exactly what the disagreement was about. People are of course free to disagree with me, with Ms Lau or with Tung Chee-hwa. For some, though, taking a poke at Ms Lau seems to have become an end in itself.

It was apparently the writer's view that Hong Kong people would no longer agree with Ms Lau about anything, because of her alien citizenship and the wave of patriotism which had engulfed Hong Kong since the handover.

This particular movement of public opinion is interesting because it is like the Virgin of Fatima: only believers can see it.

Supposing it exists, though, I doubt if the newly-patriotic population believes that it is now required to suspend its political and moral judgment on the activities of the Chinese Government, or for that matter the Hong Kong one.

Stephen Decatur once said: 'My country right or wrong,' but did not suggest that patriotism required him to pretend there was no difference between the two.

He was, in turn, rebuked in an obscure but treasurable quote, by G K Chesterton: 'My country right or wrong is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying: 'My mother drunk or sober.' ' Nury Vittachi is on holiday