A blight on Hong Kong's 'can-do' spirit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2007, 12:00am


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Never mind the much-publicised idea of Hong Kong people's 'can-do' spirit. A long shadow is looming over the city's development, because conventional thought has seemingly deepened the 'cannot-do' spirit in society.

Conventional thinking has it that the government, which lacks an electoral mandate and is vulnerable to pressure from the powerful (read: political parties) and the rich (business tycoons), dare not tackle difficult issues.

And, even if it does, it has become - to borrow an analogy from Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun, who used it in relation to the Queen's Pier saga - a 'crab with weak legs' when its policies hit a snag. It has also been a long-held view that corporations put profits above the pursuit of other goals, such as social responsibility.

More people, meanwhile, have subscribed to the notion that the price to pay for democracy is populism. Translated into policy-making, it means that policies requiring people to make an effort are a non-starter. Many cases show how a narrow mindset has constrained debate on contentious issues such as air quality, not to mention on consensus-building for a solution. The growing sense of the immense difficulty of getting anything done has aggravated the 'cannot-do' spirit and, worse, bred mistrust and suspicion within society.

Sceptics and cynics may have resigned themselves, not without valid reason, to the deplorable state of our politics, given its systemic flaws.

But to the Council for Sustainable Development, finding solutions to reduce foul air need not be a pipe dream, if everyone is made aware of the problem, the options for a solution and the trade-offs.

The government-appointed council plans to launch a massive bottom-up consultation-cum-publicity-exercise next month on possible solutions for clean air. One member of the council said: 'There is a lot of conversation, and polarised views. We hope we will be able to bridge societal and business needs, and government intention.'

He lamented the proliferation of suspicion and second-guessing in society. 'We hope everyone puts their cards on the table ... There's no easy solution. There are difficult choices to be made. But we need to mobilise the community to understand the complex issues, the trade-offs,' he said.

Under the plan, getting people involved in finding a solution is equally, if not more, important than soliciting their preferences for specific policy choices.

This will prove vitally important in building a more solid foundation for decision-making on difficult issues and in dispelling the suspicion and mistrust between the government, businesses and community.

Admittedly, some of the council's proposals will be controversial - both in political viability and practical feasibility. For instance, any suggestion of taxpayers subsidising bus companies and truck owners to switch to more environmentally friendly vehicles will draw a swift rebuttal from critics.

The idea of closing schools and forcing employees to work from home on bad-air days may also have profound implications for society.

There are good reasons, however, to hope that the new approach in policy- making could narrow the differences of opinion through a more open, thorough debate. Foul air affects everybody, and will instil a greater sense of urgency and pragmatism between the people, the government and businesses to stop talking the talk.

As people change their mindset and long-held notions, policy options that might have been deemed impossible could become a possibility.

Any success on such difficult issues could, in turn, help alter entrenched views, bring in new thinking and create fresh opportunities in policy-making.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large