Let the brains collide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 1998, 12:00am

It is a right hemisphere versus left hemisphere thing. The Hong Kong Government is no different to the rest of humanity in this. Practical matters, like accountancy, diesel tax and pumping sewage straight into the harbour are dealt with in one hemisphere of the brain. Creative and intuitive matters like language, the arts and quality of life in the other.

But in individuals there are occasional sparks of communication between one side and the other. That is why we know, for instance, that it may be cheaper to let our waste water wash straight down the hill through ancient, cracked and inadequate sewage pipes, overflow into storm drains and occasionally re-emerge in the streets of Central, but it is infinitely preferable to treat it and find sustainable ways to dispose of it.

Intuitively, we understand the harbour will be more pleasant and less likely to congeal into a stinking mire, if we do not burden it daily with two million tonnes of waste.

Governments do not have the inter-hemispheric synapses required for intuition. It takes some sentient human being like a Governor or Chief Executive (OK, OK, it is quite an assumption, but previous leaders have occasionally come up with good ideas like sewage treatment schemes), to collect lifestyle impulses from one side of the brain and use them to guide the policies implemented by the other. The technical phrase for this process is 'banging hemispheres together', although in layman's language we talk, loosely, of banging heads.

Without this brutal process, nary a communication passes between departments.

Thousands of workers have slaved away for years in the Environmental Protection Department, for instance, installing air-pollution monitors four storeys above street level, and guesstimating the pollution lower down. Finally, under some head-thumping by the media, they get around to installing a few down on the ground where the exhaust fumes are - and discover, to no one else's surprise, that the guesstimates are 170 per cent too low.

But in all this time, no one has been able to flash a single neurotransmitter across to the Financial Secretary's hemisphere (or indeed to the strange hemispherical world inhabited by Legislative Councillors, provisional and elected).

Over there on the other side of the great synaptical divide (wider than a synaptical cleft, which is what neurotransmitters normally do manage to jump across), they still work on the assumption that more pollution means a better quality of life.

That is because, to them, pollution is an indication that business is booming. Therefore taxi-drivers, minibus drivers, goods vehicle drivers, industrialists, port operators and other organisms for whom daily inputs of diesel fuel are necessary for the maintenance of life, have just been granted a hefty cut in diesel tax.

Now this is something that must have been given the green light by the Chief Executive, although it is amazing the Financial Secretary managed to see it through the smog. But then, his office is on the 11th floor.

This suggests, however, that Tung Chee-hwa's own neurotransmitter receptors have not yet been stimulated either. Alternatively he has not yet mastered the art of hemisphere banging.

Otherwise, he might be expected to have done what leaders are supposed to do - make the connection between Hong Kong's deteriorating air quality, its traffic congestion and the availability of cheap diesel and performed that classic left-brain operation of putting two and two together.

At the very least, as the only official with the synaptical structure to know what both the right and left hands are doing, he should have made the point that a tax cut must come with conditions. A faster switch to cleaner fuels, encouraged by bigger tax cuts and incentives for the use of petrol or LPG would be one possibility.

Better still, how about tighter emission control standards and a campaign to force all diesel vehicles over a certain age into garages for regular tuning, creating hundreds of jobs for car mechanics? Just a suggestion of course. He is the one who has to bang the hemispheres together.