Not in my backyard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am

Last Sunday, a simmering dispute surrounding a disused school building on Lantau turned into a flaming row that has convulsed a town and spread all the way up to the chief executive. At the same time it shone a spotlight on a pervasive 'not in my backyard' mentality in Hong Kong, where residents and local leaders are happy for unpopular facilities to be put up anywhere but in their own communities.

The row over the plan by Hong Kong's only drug rehabilitation school, the Christian Zheng Sheng College, to move into the former New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School in Mui Wo turned nasty almost 21/2 years after the college first applied to make the move from its present cramped quarters.

At a consultation meeting in Mui Wo, students from the school were reduced to tears as residents waved placards and booed them, shouting: 'We don't want these druggies.'

It recalled previous bitter 'not in my backyard' disputes, including one over an Aids clinic in Kowloon Bay that prompted the Equal Opportunities Commission to intervene and led to two residents facing court action.

But while the latest dispute distressed the students and their teachers, the Mui Wo opposition, pictured on television and in newspapers, may have helped their cause by bringing it to the attention of the broader community.

On Monday, moved by the Mui Wo scenes, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen called for community support for non-governmental bodies involved in drug rehabilitation.

'When our children make mistakes, they need forbearance,' he said. 'I hope Hong Kong society generally, and the Mui Wo community in particular, can embrace these young people with love and give them a second chance.'

At the same time, 31 lawmakers, mostly pan-democrats, signed a letter urging the government to give the vacant site to the college, and a government source said the administration was determined to do so.

Although the college - which houses 110 students in a building designed for 60 - applied to use the Mui Wo site in December 2006, it had not previously received a definite response from the government. Now, opponents of the move including Mui Wo residents and Islands district councillors - some of whom say the site should be used for a local school - seem to be on the back foot.

Islands district councillor Wong Fuk-kan criticised the government for failing to consult Mui Wo residents and the council about the school's expansion plan earlier, because Mr Tsang was aware of local opposition to the proposal last June.

Mr Wong said the government should have openly consulted Mui Wo residents last year. 'If we had learned that so many parties had applied for use of the site, we would have helped the college find a solution while catering to the needs of Mui Wo residents. Misunderstanding and conflicts could have been avoided.'

Action Committee Against Narcotics chairman Daniel Shek Tan-lei said the row reflected a policy gap.

'Public education on mental health in Hong Kong is really weak. There is much misunderstanding and discrimination. The government is paying for not providing proper education on the issue.'

He said some drug rehabilitation centres kept a low profile or used ambiguous names to avoid upsetting locals, but this might create another problem. 'One of the most important challenges for people affected by drugs is to face up to themselves.'

Mr Shek believes the need for drug rehabilitation school is increasing as the age of drug takers becomes younger. 'There is a need for a policy to encourage dialogue between affected groups and society. Having a consultation session in this way is not the solution,' he said.

Chinese University associate professor Chan Kin-man, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies, said the consultative process itself was the cause of such disputes, which often broke out while setting up services for minority groups such as drug abusers, mental patients or HIV carriers.

'The government has been waging a war against teenage drug abuse for two years,' he said. 'The government advertisements keep on saying that these drug-abusing teenagers are dangerous and horrible. It is natural for some Mui Wo residents to have resistance, prejudice and misunderstanding about the project.'

Professor Chan said there was always a labelling problem.

'For example, there are usually negative associations of drug takers with the lower class, with stealing, and with sexually transmitted diseases.'

It was the same with the setting up of HIV/Aids clinics, said Professor Chan, who conducted research on the affair surrounding Kowloon Bay clinic 10 years ago. A long-standing row with residents of the nearby Richland Gardens estate erupted when the clinic in the Kowloon Bay Integrated Treatment Centre opened in June 1999.

Protest banners immediately demanded that people with 'sexually transmitted diseases' should be kept apart from children and the elderly. Residents staged protests calling for the closure of the clinic.

It was a hard time for both staff and patients.

The residents' action prompted the Equal Opportunities Commission to mail 10,000 letters explaining the laws on discrimination.

In 2001, five workers at the HIV/Aids clinic filed a writ against three Richland Gardens residents, accusing them of discrimination by blocking staff access to the clinic during their protests.

The row culminated in court action against two residents but this was dropped in 2002 after they apologised to workers at the health centre. Poon Chun-yuen, now a Kwun Tong district councillor who was a residents' representative during the fracas, noted similarities with the row over Zheng Sheng College.

'The government should be more prepared at the beginning of the consultation stage. Not everyone is open and well educated to accept all ideas,' Mr Poon said.

'When the government said a clinic was to be built, there was no mention that it was for HIV patients. But then the plan was suddenly tabled to the district council.

'At the time, government advertisements were saying Aids was the most horrible disease of the century. How can you force us to agree without any doubt?' he said.

'Everyone wants to have a park next to their home and no one wants an incinerator. The difference is in having better consultation. If there had been better communication before handing the proposal to the district council, all related parties would have been more reassured,' said Mr Poon, who has been a district councillor for 10 years.

Halfway houses, which provide a transitional period of residential care to help mental patients reintegrate into the community, run into similar problems. Yuen Long district councillor Wong Yu-choi is busy opposing such an establishment in Tin Shui Wai.

Mr Wong said government departments usually tried to avoid having open consultation on sensitive projects.

'The idea of having a halfway house only went to the Housing Estate Committee,' said Mr Wong, arguing that by thus limiting the number of people involved, getting support for the plan was easier.

But that approach could backfire, said Mr Wong, who has been a district councillor since 2004.

Like their counterparts in Islands district, Mr Poon and Mr Wong feel the process is not transparent enough.

Professor Chan said the type of consultation done on these issues could not continue in present-day society.

'When society is becoming more transparent, the administration has to take a new approach. This is especially important for sensitive topics like drugs, mental illness and HIV.

'It is not only Hong Kong [people who] have reservations about facilities like incinerators, shopping centres or halfway houses. In the US, there is legislation [regarding] the distribution of these facilities,' he said.

The professor said there was still 'lots to do' to improve communication through education.

'This could be done not only by the government but also by involving non-governmental organisations. They could also talk about benefits, like how [the students] could benefit the economy of the area.'

But even if Zheng Sheng College eventually moves to Mui Wo, it will take time to mend the rift between the school and the residents.