Little hope

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am

Last Saturday, I woke up to what sounded like a dozen drills all going at once. Actually, there were only two but noise always sounds so much louder when you're woken up by it. I am experiencing the dread of every Hongkonger - the flat upstairs is being gutted and virtually rebuilt. Trying to read the Saturday papers proved possible only because I knew there was nothing I could do. Hong Kong law protects the drills, not my need to replenish mind and body.

The first thing I noticed in the papers was a piece about who would become Hong Kong's next chief executive. That's when I thought this: what do I care about who becomes chief executive? Whoever it is won't stop the drilling or even wonder why it is allowed so early on a Saturday morning.

Think about this. We have one of the world's largest, best-paid bureaucracies, 60 legislators, and hundreds of district councillors, all financed by the taxpayer to improve the quality of our lives. Are we getting our money's worth?

Over the past few months I have told every legislator I encountered about a high-rise commercial building in Wan Chai that's being demolished for no other reason than that the owner - a large property developer - wants to make more money with an even taller building.

The legislators were disinterested. I pointed out the greed-motivated demolition would create tonnes of rubble that must be dumped on scarce landfills, hurt the environment with noise and dust that would bring misery to the area's residents, and add yet another wall-effect building to already overbuilt Wan Chai. They were still disinterested.

One legislator argued that the law allowed developers to do whatever they wished. He wasn't bothered by this. He simply accepted it. And that's what separates us from truly developed societies. We simply accept certain things that shouldn't be tolerated. We care only about the big things but ignore the equally important smaller things without which no society can claim to be truly advanced.

Our bureaucrats talk grandly about high-speed trains to the mainland, bridges to Macau, multibillion-dollar cultural complexes, 'iconic' towers that crowd our skyline and 'pillar' industries - a term that means very little to ordinary people. But have you ever heard them talk about the little things that are also important to the quality of life. Have you heard them talk about safety for workers building those 'iconic' towers, except when workers die? Only then will they make a great show of caring, like they did on Sunday, when construction workers died in the city's worst industrial accident in a decade.

Our legislators behave as if they were elected solely to demand democracy, or not to demand it, depending on their political affiliation. They spend half their time protesting about this and that, and the other half bickering about other things, little of which have anything to do with improving your everyday life.

It will be great to be able to drive to Macau on a shiny new bridge but, after you've lost a small fortune, wouldn't it be nice to have a Saturday morning lie-in at home without being woken by a dozen drills? Wouldn't it be nice to walk along the harbourfront, if you can find it amid the reclamation work, and not have to smell the sewer? Or spread a checkered cloth on real grass at a nearby park for a lazy picnic? But these simple things are not deemed important by our bureaucrats, legislators and district councillors. That's why we, as an 'advanced' society, can't do any of it.

What developed city allows construction site piling-driving from 7am to 7pm, six days a week? Or drills going in your neighbour's flat 12 hours a day, six days a week? Our noise laws are more than 20 years old, no longer suitable for today's Hong Kong. But our bureaucrats and legislators don't think it's important to update them. The little things in life mean little to them.

Frankly, I couldn't care less who becomes the next chief executive. Nothing will change, whoever it is. I would readily trade early democracy for a Saturday morning lie-in.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster