Too late for awards

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 September, 1999, 12:00am

For the briefest period after the Taiwan earthquake, it looked as if speedy offers of help and sympathy from the mainland might serve to heal the discord stirred up by President Lee Teng-hui's 'two states' speech. Today, that idea seems like wishful thinking.

Instead, the rift has widened following Beijing's gratuitous introduction of politics into a tragedy in which nothing but considerations of common humanity should have been allowed to intrude. By thanking the world for its help on behalf of Taiwan, and insisting that International Red Cross aid should be registered with the mainland before being sent to Taipei, the situation was exacerbated. But Taiwanese officials also are guilty of discourtesy and ingratitude, and have given great offence to many in Hong Kong.

Caught in the middle are 16 of the SAR's firefighters, who were sent, admittedly late in the day, to help in the rescue effort. They are the innocent pawns caught up in the squabble.

However, the Government's well-meaning attempt to make up for their rejection in Taiwan by giving them a special commendation is somehow misplaced. It will only shed more limelight on an episode which is best forgotten.

If the firemen are feeling embarrassed because they had to return with their mercy mission unfulfilled, they now have the disconcerting experience of collecting honours that they were not in truth allowed to earn. That cannot help to lighten their mood. What it does is devalue the commendation system for others who may deserve special recognition for outstanding acts in the future.

It does not take any special plaudits to enhance the standing of Hong Kong's fire service in the eyes of the public. Its members' dedication, heroism and efficiency is demonstrated daily, and has earned them enduring admiration and respect. A regrettable experience in Taiwan in no way affects the public's view here, apart from the indignation that is felt on the firefighters' behalf.

The volunteers who went to help have nothing to reproach themselves for. They arrived, willing to do whatever was asked of them. So there is no need to restore their 'face' since they have not lost any. The authorities should perhaps embark on an exercise to see why it took them so long to offer assistance, when teams from the other side of the world were on the scene in hours, but that is all.

Back in Taiwan, where two brothers were pulled alive from the ruins after five days, rescue co-ordinators may be asking themselves whether it was wise to turn away any willing helpers, no matter how late on the scene, while there was still hope of finding survivors. But in any event, it is too late now.