The greed creed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am

Greed, like lust, is difficult to tame. I know of a Hong Kong landlord who is a priest. Whether his religious calling helps to subdue any temptations of lust, only he knows. But I do know this: he haggled for weeks with a prospective tenant for an extra HK$250 a month in rent. The property agent handling the negotiations told me the priest, who owns many flats, is a hard bargainer. Nothing in the Bible says priests can't be hard-nosed capitalists.

When greed brought the world to the brink of financial collapse, the capitalist world came under pressure to re-examine the moral upside of greed. Upsides and downsides are revered words in capitalist jargon. They dictate decisions. And greed has always been considered a definite upside. It lubricates capitalism.

The morality of greed crept into the equation only after rank-and-file capitalists who lost the most in the financial meltdown turned against the fat cats who made the most. But leaders of the capitalist world are still unsure about how much morality they should inject into capitalism. They dithered before deciding at last week's G20 summit to take only half measures against the exorbitant incomes of bankers whose capitalist greed ruined so many lives.

In Hong Kong, greed is so built into the system that questioning it on moral grounds elicits blank stares. You know it is morally wrong for our developers to sell you flats which are actually far smaller than what you have paid for. You know you are being cheated but you also know you can do nothing.

The greed of our property developers is built into our system. They can legally cheat you. You can right this injustice by legally cheating the next buyer, should you decide to sell. The system allows that, too.

You may consider it bad taste for Sun Hung Kai Properties to greedily jack up the price by 20 per cent for two of its penthouses to HK$300 million apiece just when six of its workers had plunged to their deaths at one of its construction sites. But no one would think of connecting the two, although we all know greed is also behind the poor observance of Hong Kong's construction site safety laws. 'It's business,' as the Mafia bosses would say.

Nothing is allowed to impede business here, not even the moral downside of greed. Our top government officials aid and abet in building greed into our system. They talk of 'small government, big markets' in deference to capitalism. You can take that to mean our business tycoons should have free rein without government interference.

That is why you can do nothing about pay-TV companies taking you for a ride or weekly price hikes at our supermarkets. I have personally observed the price of a litre carton of fruit juice jump from under HK$10 to nearly HK$20 in two years. The government has obligingly built a duopoly into our supermarket sector to allow this unrestrained greed.

Steven Spielberg's 1982 hit Poltergeist, which was re-shown on pay-TV last week, told of a greedy developer who built homes above a cemetery, unleashing ghosts. It was just a movie. Here in Hong Kong, truckers working for a mystery businessman illegally dumped waste on private farmland in Sheung Shui which included coffin remains and gravestone parts. The July dumping was no movie, it was for real. But the government went after the victims, not the offender.

Here's something else for real. I saw a doctor recently for a minor ailment. When he realised I was in the media business, his attention turned from medical matters to property prices and stock markets. Why hasn't the property market burst, he wanted to know, and was it a good time to buy shares. He spent far more time with me than the three minutes Hong Kong doctors normally spare their patients.

But if Hong Kong priests can try squeezing as much rent money as possible from you, why can't Hong Kong doctors focus on stocks while treating you?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster