Look beyond the opinion polls

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 October, 1997, 12:00am

Funny things, opinion polls. In the wrong hands, they can be twisted and distorted to prove almost anything. Then, when the purported results are reported in the press, they can be interpreted in a variety of ways, often wrong.

John Major was doomed, the pollsters proclaimed in 1991. A political wizard named Chris Patten pulled a magical electoral rabbit out of the hat and the Tories lasted for another five years, although the architect of the victory lost his own seat and was sent to Hong Kong as our governor.

Then there was the ultra-cynical and manipulative poll of 1987, when Hong Kong people were presented with a baffling series of choices.

The results proved - a total falsehood - that we didn't want one-man, one-vote democracy in the 1988 election. That was a shameful sham.

So when I saw recent public opinion polls reporting that the president of the Provisional Legislative Council, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, was 'Hong Kong's least popular politician' I read the stories carefully. Some accounts were not entirely accurate.

As a politician, Ms Fan must pay attention to the polls just as a stockbroker must watch the market fluctuations. It's part of the job.

However, Ms Fan is not a slave to the pollsters. I have known her for 20 years and she has always been forthright, direct and honest.

Unlike many of our politicians, she tends to think before she speaks. And when she says something, she means it.

Take the question of Vietnamese illegal immigrants. In 1986, when she was an appointed Legislative Councillor, Ms Fan confronted the Vietnamese issue. At that time, many public figures still ducked and dived for cover, frightened to say what they thought or what should be done for fear of losing support.

Not the formidable Ms Fan. She was then head of Legco's Security Panel and the entire question of illegal immigration was her responsibility.

Her typically frank, opinions were widely condemned. Ms Fan did not budge. She said Hong Kong had been saddled with the Vietnamese and would continue to carry an unfair burden because of decisions made by others.

She called for a stop. There was furore. She stood firm.

She disagreed with the direction Chris Patten was taking on internal political reforms. She realised then, in 1992, that the Patten proposals were doomed to failure, that China would never accept them.

The morning that Mr Patten was preparing for his landmark policy address in October, 1992, Ms Fan went to Government House. She quit her appointed seat in Legco, saying she had had enough of politics. She bided her time. Four years later, when the Provisional Legislative Council was formed, she was on the body. Later, members elected her president.

As she had predicted, China rejected the Patten changes.

In her newly-refurbished office in the Legislative Council chambers, the president of the council ponders the effects of polls on our political process.

'There's always a question about how the questions are asked,' she muses.

'Of course, I study the results. I ask myself if I have been presenting myself in a confused manner. Do people know what I stand for? Am I saying what I believe in a confident way? 'If I have done nothing that clashes with my conscience, there is nothing for me to be sorry about, no matter what the polls say. So I just go back to work.' Naturally, Ms Fan would like to top the polls. That rank in recent polls goes to Chief of Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang, with 86 per cent in favour, closely followed by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa with 82 per cent. Ms Fan scores 45 per cent. That poll showed an identical number of people, 45 per cent, were satisfied with the way the provisional legislature was doing its job.

'I'm not out to seek popularity,' Ms Fan insists. 'I've got a job to do, and I'm going to do it.' Of course, Ms Fan is not alone in being a politician with perseverance and continuity. Martin Lee Chu-ming does not deviate from his stance in calling for a full one-man, one-vote system. Once again, agree or disagree, you have to give him full credit for his consistency.

Nobody who knows Rita Fan can imagine her mouthing fashionable ideas just to reap poll recognition. Why doesn't she get a better ranking from the public? I believe it's a matter of our late-20th century fascination with entertainment, show business, television and the pitiful global interest in celebrities.

Ms Fan can present a somewhat forbidding image. In person, she's the opposite, with a sparkling smile and hearty laugh. But she's reserved, and this characteristic doesn't come across on television, which is where most public opinion is formed.

A slick team of public relations experts, fashion consultants and media advisors could no doubt do wonders with Ms Fan's image. With flashy clothes and opinions tailored for public consumption, I have no doubt she could soar in the poll ratings.

But is this the sort of politician Hong Kong needs as we face the enormous challenges and vast opportunities of the 21st century? Do we require some artificially sweetened mock-up individual in the frontline of our leadership or do we need some straightforward, honesty? I know what I'd prefer: a politician who is prepared to defy the whims and fancies of public opinion and stick fast to their principles.