Off the rails or just plain coma-induced

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 1993, 12:00am

WHEN I first started working as a reporter I was young, fit, active, keen and desperate to impress. None of this mattered one jot when I entered the local council chamber to cover a committee meeting.

No sooner did the words ''On a point of order, Mr Chairman'' escape someone's lips than I found my eyelids creeping inexorably downwards and my head bobbing up and down, like a toy dog in the back window of the cheaper sort of car, as sleep enveloped me.

Of course, it was always a fitful slumber, since the press benches of council chambers are notoriously uncomfortable, and few reporters have the audacity to lay their head down on the desk top to get a proper rest.

Instead, I would awake repeatedly with a start and a grunt, and begin to take shorthand notes like a demented stenographer, worried that I had missed that crucial vote on footpath maintenance and embarrassed in case my mouth was open and my snores were too loud.

The phenomenon whereby a committee meeting will induce chronic narcolepsy among the most hyperactive of people is well known, and in Hong Kong last week we were able to see the results of this inevitable process on one of our own august bodies.

It was reported that the Housing Authority's building committee voted to authorise the spending of $65 million to install higher railings at 160 housing blocks. The idea is that loftier railings will make it harder for potential suicides to climb over and hurl themselves to their deaths.

My first thought was that here was a case of collective narcolepsy. The committee members were clearly fast asleep as they came to the railings item in the agenda. Perhaps the chairman was the only person awake at the time, and when he had finished droning sonorously through the proposal he had to bang the table to wake everyone up. ACUTELY conscious they had been napping, the members would have done their best to feign alertness, and would have grunted assent to the proposal, while digging a pen into their inner thighs in a desperate bid to stay awake.

So it must have been as big a surprise to committee members, as it was to the rest of Hong Kong, to read the next day that millions of dollars were to be spent replacing 1.2 metre-high railings with those measuring 1.5-metres.

Essentially, what they are planning is to add 30 centimetres - roughly the length of your forearm if you are reading this page at arm's length - in height as a preventative measure to stop people from taking their lives on Housing Authority properties.

The authority must believe a depressed adolescent, or a woman battered by her husband or a gambler with big debts and no prospect of paying them off, is going to look at these new, improved railings and think: ''Wait a minute, I have to make far too muchof an effort to end it all here - I think I'll go and call the Samaritans instead''.

Perhaps I am being unfair to the building committee. Maybe they were all full of extra-strong espresso when they voted for the railings and were therefore in command of their faculties.

It is possible to speculate they had in front of them carefully-collated data showing the majority of people throwing themselves from HA properties were on the short side; maybe one or two of them were dwarfs.

Instead of 30 cms being a pathetically small increase in height that will deter absolutely no one regretfully wanting to end it all from climbing over and jumping, the increase might actually act as an insurmountable barrier to potential suicides lackingthe height to clamber over the extra railings.

Nor do the reports mention if there were other options for the committee members to consider, like installing giant inflatable cushions around the base of the 160 blocks to break the fall of jumpers.

This is unlikely, of course, since the cushions would block out the light for those on the lower floors. Living in the dark all the time could give some tenants suicidal feelings, thus encouraging the very thing the authority is seeking to prevent.

Perhaps the real answer is that the motion was never passed; in fact, it only exists in our dreams; we are all still fast asleep. Sweet dreams.