Stop treating this brave man like a child

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am

When will people stop calling quadriplegic Tang Siu-pun 'Bun Chai'? In Cantonese, it literally means 'little Bun'. It is the way you would address a child, someone who is younger or socially inferior, but for whom you have certain affection. Yet this is how newspapers and television news unfailingly refer to him.

Mr Tang is 37 years old, not young by any measure. Judging by his speech and the discussions that followed about his book on euthanasia at the annual Hong Kong Book Fair at the weekend, he is a very intelligent and articulate man.

Indeed, I can't think of anyone here in recent years who has generated more heated and serious discussion about some of the deepest and most complicated issues that a society can confront: the value of a human life and the right of a patient to choose death.

We all owe a debt to Mr Tang for bringing out into the open the ethical and legal conundrums of euthanasia. It is a taboo subject among the more traditional Chinese people and a political football that doctors, health officials and politicians prefer to avoid. But it is an issue that will not go away in a modern society with advanced medical technology and services that can keep very ill people alive for a long time even when their quality of life has been reduced to practically nothing.

Mr Tang started the ball rolling when he first wrote to legislators and the then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2004 demanding that the law be changed so he could die with medical assistance in a peaceful and painless manner.

Some people assumed his letter to Mr Tung was no more than a plea for attention, and many of the overwhelming responses from do-gooders and social groups organising outings and gifts for him at the time bore more than a hint of condescension.

Do you remember the picture of Mr Tang flanked by Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Disneyland, splashed across many newspapers? Why would anyone think an intelligent, grown man - he was 34 at the time - would find enjoyment and entertainment in a la-la land for children?

Unless, of course, you unthinkingly assume he is a child because, like one, he can't take care of himself, physically anyway.

This is precisely the kind of suffering and humiliation he talked and wrote about - having to ask other people to help him perform the most intimate and simplest of tasks every day.

It should be clear by now that in writing the letter to Mr Tung and his 300-page Chinese-language book I Demand Euthanasia - which may also be translated as 'I demand to die peacefully' - he is making a case for euthanasia on principled grounds.

'The value of a person's life is subjective, and cannot be judged by others,' he said, adding the obvious point that arguing for the right to euthanasia is not the same as saying he wants to die now.

It is a choice or a right, he argues, that should be sanctioned by law and exercisable by a patient, in a rational frame of mind, at his or her discretion.

Mr Tang may be right or he may be wrong. But his position certainly deserves serious examination and reflection, and is not to be dismissed out of hand by well-meaning people who have 'advised' him time and again in letters, newspaper editorials and face-to-face meetings that he must hang in there and not give up.

I wonder if they are not really trying to say: shut up with your demands for assisted death!

Mr Tang says he is 'just an ordinary man'. But as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: 'Ecco homo' - Behold the man. At the very least, I would never dare call him Bun Chai. For his suffering and struggle, and his courage to speak out, he is a man who deserves our fullest respect; he is Mr Tang to you and me.

Alex Lo is a columnist and chief reporter at the Post