Lai Tung-kwok

Deregulating the marriage business

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 5:14pm


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Is nothing sacred? That rhetorical question is cliched, and every cliche needs a good excuse. In this case one has been provided by the Director of Immigration, Lai Tung-kwok, in his capacity as Hong Kong's Registrar of Marriages.

Marriage, he announced yesterday, has been privatised. If you don't believe it - if you are thinking, is nothing sacred? - here it is, in the director's own bureaucratese, on the government's information website: 'The purpose of the Civil Celebrants of Marriages Scheme is to meet the increasing public demand for the government to provide more flexible marriage solemnisation services and to make use of private sector resources (our italics) in providing such services.'

So there. Marriage has been opened up to competition. How romantic. Such an approach could only happen in Hong Kong, the place that gave the expression 'shotgun marriage' new meaning, as anyone who has tied the knot in one of Mr Lai's marriage registries would attest after being shunted in and out - single one minute and married the next.

In case you haven't guessed, it means, as we report today, that from now on you can not only choose who you want to marry but also who you want to perform the ceremony, what kind of ceremony you would like it to be and where you would like it to be. Well, almost. You might still have to deal with the bureaucracy if you want to get married, say, on a platform in an MTR station or in some other public place because that is where you first laid eyes on your beloved.

Welcome to the rest of the world, Asia's world city. And not before time. Until now Hongkongers could marry only in a registry or a place of worship. A state-church marriage duopoly sounds a touch out of step for a city that ranks high on the world league ladder of economic and personal freedoms.

In case you think you've read about this somewhere before, you may have - it was more than a year ago that the government lifted the veil on its proposal. It is certainly not a case of deregulate in haste, repent at leisure.

Now that it has finally taken the plunge, perhaps we may expect to hear more of last year's suggestion by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, then chief secretary and Population Task Force chief, that Hong Kong might actually have to pay young couples to have more children - preferably at least three - by way of tax incentives. The aim is to reverse the city's sliding birth rate - one of the lowest in the world - and the ageing of our population.

The government is to be commended for letting the fresh breath of competition into the marriage business - and for its respect for freedom of choice. Romantic minimalists, or people who are just too busy, can still duck in and out of a registry and get the formalities over with quickly so they can get on with the celebrations elsewhere - or just get back to work.