Open to abuse

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am

The latest round of anti-government protests in Thailand caught many Hong Kong holidaymakers by surprise this Easter. According to reports, up to 8,000 Hongkongers were in Bangkok and Pattaya when the riots erupted at a regional leaders' meeting that included the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last weekend. The meeting was cancelled after protesters broke into the venue in the resort of Pattaya and the Thai authorities subsequently declared a state of emergency.

The Hong Kong government was heavily criticised in November over its sluggish response to the previous political unrest in Bangkok. After the closure of the capital's airports, it initially refused to send chartered flights to bring people home, but reversed that decision in less than 24 hours.

Having learned from the events of November, the government was better prepared this time and issued travel warnings even before the start of the Easter holiday.

But, despite the difficult situation in Thailand, many Hong Kong travellers insisted on going ahead with their plans. Many believed that, if the situation deteriorated, the government would charter flights to rescue them. This irrational and unreasonable behaviour should be roundly condemned.

To be fair, the government was wrongly accused last time. In fact, the authorities did issue travel advisories during the last emergency, but many people chose to ignore them. When the government later laid on flights, many Hong Kong tourists still refused to come back. Some even used the excuse that the government had delayed the evacuation and therefore refused to pay for the air fares. This kind of mentality and unruly behaviour is not only an abuse of the system, it also puts an unnecessary workload burden on our immigration officers.

Another, recent, example of seeming abuse of the system that sticks out like a sore thumb is the case of Undersecretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung, in which he offered his government name card as proof of income when renewing his maid's contract. The revelation immediately drew disapproval from immigration officers and sparked a public uproar.

Presumably, by supplying his name card to immigration officers, Mr So must have been trying to infer that they would know his salary because his earnings were public knowledge; therefore that was sufficient proof that he had the financial means to hire a helper.

The fact that he provided only the name card, rather than the required documents such as bank records and pay slips, might not have constituted an abuse of power. But the truth is that he used his public position for a personal matter and that certainly smacks of arrogance, which is indicative of the mindset of some of our officials.

Immigration officials who came out to defend their decision that it was appropriate for officers to occasionally exercise such discretion were unduly criticised by some legislators - even though similar discretion had been given in the past when applicants could not provide sufficient documentation.

Our legislators do, from time to time, benefit from discretionary arrangements offered by the Immigration Department. All legislators can use the airport's special immigration channel and have access to the VIP lounge when travelling abroad. And when the new identity card and passport were introduced, they were put at the front of the queue to speed up their applications. So, when such leeway was granted in their favour, none of them complained, it seems. That certainly smacks of double standards.

Mr So's case has laid bare some of the fundamental flaws in the political appointment system. The lack of transparency in the appointment process has provoked public ire and made people question the integrity of our system. This is a highly sensitive issue, especially in this economic downturn when few people other than senior officials still enjoy a high salary with job security. That is why officials need to be exemplary in their public and private conduct to avoid provoking further public discontent.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator