An unpleasant custom that we can do without

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

Local customs are to be treated with respect wherever you are. They can be confusing and disconcerting at times, but 'when in Rome do as the Romans do' remains a reliable maxim. It is doubtful, however, that many of us would be comfortable with the idea that when in Hong Kong, be prepared to dig deep in your pockets to get your property back if you leave it in a taxi.

We should therefore applaud businesswoman Mar Consul for refusing to do any such thing. She has also drawn attention to a practice that is - at least in some cases - more like theft than a harmless expectation that a reward will be given for returning a lost item.

As we report today, Ms Consul left her laptop computer in the back seat of a taxi. When the driver and laptop were found she was prepared to reward the driver, preferably with a gift. But she was confronted with a demand for HK$5,000, 'negotiated down' to HK$2,500. A taxi company operator frankly admitted: 'This is the common practice in Hong Kong. You have to pay.'

But a police spokesman rightly reminded members of the public - including taxi drivers - that they are legally obliged to return lost property to the rightful owners or risk prosecution for theft.

Ms Consul's experience is a bad example of unreasonable demands being made. Like her, most people would be happy to compensate a driver for returning lost property. After all, everyone bears responsibility for taking good care of their property. But facing demands for large sums of money is unacceptable.

The practice of expecting - and being paid - a reward for returning lost property is not unique to Hong Kong. Our city is generally an honest one and anecdotal evidence suggests there are some taxi drivers who are happy to return lost property without expecting any reward.

Thankfully, Ms Consul's case had a happy ending when the driver relented in his demand for HK$2,500 and handed the laptop back. In these situations, however, both driver and passenger should be guided by the spirit of good citizenship and commonsense and refuse to lend credibility to a custom we can do without.