Raymond Wong Yuk Man

Laugh off all those political banana skins

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2009, 12:00am

Much ink has been spilled of late analysing and obsessing over the chief executive's and his administration's descent into the approval-rating abyss. It's no wonder, then, that - according to rumours - Norman Chan Tak-lam, director of the Chief Executive's Office, has been busy wining and dining Suki Yau Suk-yee, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's press adviser for his 2007 chief executive campaign. There is speculation that Ms Yau will replace Mr Tsang's current spin doctor Andy Ho On-tat.

Getting a new PR adviser may help, but there are some things that no amount of spin can help. Take, for instance, the defining show-stopping moment in 2008: the policy address banana-throwing debacle.

It stole the chief executive's show; it made him blink; it obviously made him angry. And it was 'mission accomplished' for the banana-throwers. But, by being so angry, Mr Tsang handed himself to the League of Social Democrats on a silver platter.

Really, we get it. It was obnoxious and it was rude. The majority of us would prefer it if Taiwan's culture of 'legislative brawling' theatrics stayed well away from Statue Square.

Here's a bit of advice for Mr Tsang: don't be a victim of political histrionics - get a sense of humour. Understand that ridicule is the simplest form of playground politics, that being angry only makes it more fun and, as the experts say, they'll just come back for more. Instead of playing right into their hands, try throwing back some humour to counter the crudeness. It shouldn't be that difficult: if US President George W. Bush can do it, after ducking a size 10 shoe, so can you. And perhaps, for once, Beijing would agree with Chris Patten, the public relations genius: thanking Wong Yuk-man for the bananas and saving them to eat later would have reclaimed the spotlight.

Speaking of political histrionics and throwing things, Mr Tsang's decision to show up at the acid-throwing crime scene in Mong Kok was a bad idea. Playing the chief crime-scene detective from CSI:NY served absolutely no purpose.

Indeed, CSI:HK is a bad show and the government must stop subjecting the public to its own political histrionics.

While trips to the annual Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo are tolerable, at best, prime time can be better spent truly engaging the public - ironically, an idea Mr Tsang introduced in his first policy address. Being truly open to opportunities to engage people, listen to their woes, understand their plight and let people get to know you will open eyes and ears to better judgment and policies.

Contrary to popular belief, the chief executive's public relations nightmare did not occur because of the expansion of the political appointment system, per se. The seeds of his unpopularity were sown when Mr Tsang unveiled his 'friend-or-foe governance approach' - the quickest way to lose friends. This with-us-or-against-us dichotomy effectively castrated Mr Tsang's political influence. And, what happens when the government makes a point of excluding people, and pitches one group against another? People embrace the very 'political, economic and social extremes' the chief executive complained about in his last policy address.

Never has the adage, 'you reap what you sow', been so true as for Mr Tsang's public relations failures. (Re)reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People may help but, at the end of the day, a good leader must possess the power of persuasion. Everyday life teaches us that friends are easier to persuade and far more forgiving than enemies.

Until direct elections are held for the selection of the chief executive, winning friends and influencing people will be all the more important in the absence of a system that ensures a popular mandate.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA