Myth overtakes fact

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2009, 12:00am

Just hours after the light-bulb scandal broke 10 days ago I was up at Government House with the chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. We were recording a TV show. He seemed unusually quiet, almost distant. Normally, every time he greeted me he would ask about my family, something that dates back years when he visited Washington as a senior official while I was a correspondent there. But this time he didn't. I could tell his mind was elsewhere.

He had just returned from a lunch with legislators where a street protester threw yet another banana at him. 'I'm not feeling well,' he volunteered softly. It wasn't the banana. He's now used to being a missile target. 'Too much talking,' he explained.

It turned out he was losing his voice from two days of having to defend virtually non-stop his poorly-received policy speech. But a hoarse voice was not what kept him so uncharacteristically quiet that afternoon.

It seemed to me more a case of a perplexed man lost for words. Who would have guessed a well-intentioned plan to encourage the community to switch to energy-saving light bulbs would backfire into a scandal of such unwarranted proportions?

What makes this scandal so much more damaging than the many others that have dogged Tsang is the suggestion of wrongdoing.

Any reasonable person who reads past the headlines to the facts would conclude he actually did nothing morally or ethically improper. Yet the stench of corruption hangs in the air. He is accused of having put forward the light-bulb plan solely to benefit his son's father-in-law who is in the business.

An irate bartender told me he was disgusted with Tsang's duplicity. My investment adviser branded the chief executive a crook for making his son's in-laws the sole supplier of energy-saving light-bulbs under the plan. I told him that was nonsense, that Tsang had no power to do that. He was unconvinced.

Myth has become larger than fact. Tsang's opponents inflated the myth by exploiting it, using the political guise of a moral crusade against unethical behaviour.

They descended on him like vultures to a corpse, picking away at will. The nature of the scandal made this possible. It is one thing to mess up on, say, the appointment of highly-paid political aides, which Tsang did last year. He came clean and the people moved on.

But it is quite another thing for a political leader to be accused of setting policies with a hidden aim of enriching his family. The stigma sticks even if the accusation is false.

Grandstanding moralists argue Tsang had it coming, that as chief executive he should have done more than the law required by declaring his distant family link to the light-bulb business. But the grandstanding moralists forget one thing: it is morally reprehensible to blow an issue out of proportion to exploit it on moral grounds.

Tsang's critics say he was politically insensitive for failing to declare an interest. But there's a huge difference between that and being a crooked leader. Stick it to him, by all means, for his political oversight. But it smacks of political opportunism to demand that he be grilled in the Legislative Council for being dishonest with the people.

I don't believe Tsang had an ulterior motive in announcing the light-bulb plan. I don't believe it because I have bothered to examine the facts. It was a plan suggested by green groups and accepted by Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah.

Those green groups have a moral duty now to come out and publicly declare they had pushed the plan, in one form or another, for a long time.

So far they have remained inexplicably silent. Maybe they fear they would come across as apologists for Tsang.

But there is a larger issue here. It is about rescuing the energy-saving plan from commercial interests and others who are using the scandal to destroy it because they don't want to pay just a few dollars more to fight global warming.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster