No method in the madness of officials

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2007, 12:00am

If there is any truth to the saying, often attributed to the ancient Greek writer Euripides, that 'whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad', then Hong Kong may be seriously courting destruction.

A series of actions by those in authority suggest they have gone berserk. The most recent may be the police's decision to raid the shops and offices of the retail chain G.O.D. for selling certain T-shirts.

Sales personnel were taken into custody for selling the items, which bore the Chinese characters for '14K' - the name of a well-known triad society. While one may question the wisdom of selling such T-shirts, there is no suggestion that the company has anything to do with the triads. It was simply the designer trying to be clever.

In any event, if local triads want T-shirts with their name emblazoned on them, they surely have the resources to do it themselves and do not have to rely on G.O.D. for help.

The police raid is but the latest manifestation that the authorities have gone wild in 'enforcing' the law - without the benefit of common sense. This action came only a week after the disclosure that the government has seized thousands of boats' logbooks on the grounds that they breach privacy laws because they contain personal details of past owners.

The Marine Department acknowledged that, since the beginning of the year, it had collected ship licences from the owners of about one-third of all vessels registered in Hong Kong. These licences contain such information as when and by whom a boat was built and who its previous owners were. The Marine Department apparently believes that the names of the former owners have to be concealed to protect their privacy.

This incident underlines the need for Hong Kong to enact legislation on the handling and preservation of government information. At present, the city is unusual - perhaps unique - in having no laws on the archiving of government documents. There is a need for legal processes to be clearly set out, showing what records are to be preserved, so that officials would not be in a position to selectively destroy papers that may be personally embarrassing.

What will be next? Could the demand for privacy lead the Companies Registry to decide that the names of directors should be blacked out? Shouldn't the Lands Department decide that the names of deed owners will be kept from the public unless they are willing to have their identities disclosed?

Another organisation whose decisions sometimes seem far-fetched, if not ridiculous, is the Obscene Articles Tribunal. In fact, at one time it classified a newspaper picture of Michelangelo's David as indecent. And, recently, officials from the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority asked that a book whose cover showed a 1789 painting of the Roman god of love, Cupid, kissing his wife Psyche not be sold at a book fair because the two were half naked. They later withdrew their request.

Too often, those in positions of authority take a mechanistic attitude in applying laws and regulations that they are supposed to enforce. But, in so doing, they act like robots, incapable of thought or reason.

In the coming weeks, much attention will focus on the Legislative Council by-election, in which former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang faces former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

But, no doubt, because there are six other candidates - none of whom stand any chance of winning - a debate between the two will be barred because it would be contrary to the 'equal time' ruling of the Electoral Affairs Commission. The commission will surely insist that, if there is to be a debate, all candidates must take part.

This is crazy, but it is futile to try to reason. Frivolous candidates must be treated seriously and, if that means that serious candidates are treated frivolously, then so be it. After all, this is Hong Kong.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.