Stranger than fiction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 12:00am

From the light-bulb scandal to the recent report that a lawmaker helped his sister-in-law get early compensation for losses on Lehman Brothers minibonds, beleaguered Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has been under vicious media attack for more than two weeks. Allegations of transfer of benefits and claims of favouritism have dominated the front pages, with no sign of abating.

It was reported that legislator Abraham Razack assisted Lam Suk-jing, Tsang's sister-in-law, to secure an early compensation deal to recover no more than 60 per cent of her Lehman investment several months before most other victims were made an offer. Even though Tsang had earlier told a government meeting that he had a relative who had bought Lehman products, the media chose to ignore his explanation.

Tsang has set an unenviable personal record for being hounded by the media for such an extended period. We can assume that this will carry on for some time. The light-bulb saga involves claims that Tsang conferred favours to his son's father-in-law when he proposed in his recent policy address to subsidise the purchase of energy-saving light bulbs.

Tsang seems to be caught in a wave of sensational and negative news reports that are based on false allegations. Sensational news has a market not only because of mounting public discontent, but also because some media organisations have a preset agenda. They want to go after Tsang and the administration on the assumption that they are the common public enemies.

The media will continue to have the upper hand as long as the government is perceived to be incapable of solving the most basic social issues such as a widening wealth gap, rising property prices and high unemployment.

In the face of escalating media attacks, Tsang decided to fire back at his critics earlier this week, calling their allegations malicious rumours and wilful distortions. He said the accusations were groundless and intended to undermine the integrity of the government. His response earned both sympathy and rebuke.

Some said his counter-attack might have been perceived as an interference in press freedom by government.

But, it was understandable why Tsang retaliated. The fact is that some newspapers have crossed the line and this kind of behaviour should not be tolerated in a society that is ruled by law. And, more importantly, Tsang shouldn't be denied the right to express his feelings just because he is the chief executive.

Unfortunately, he made a mistake by focusing his response mainly on his personal feelings rather than the facts. Facts speak volumes and, if there is no truth in these allegations, the public will become tired of these reports and will ultimately dismiss them. The truth is that there is no transfer of benefits in the light-bulb case because his in-law's company is not the sole distributor of energy-saving light bulbs in Hong Kong, plus the market is highly competitive. And we shouldn't forget that his in-law holds only 30 per cent of the shares of the company, thus the amount of the so-called benefits would be negligible.

His sister-in-law's case raised suspicion because she secured an early settlement in the minibond fiasco in April. Hence, the media assumed that she was given preferential treatment. The media further alleged that many of the early settlement cases mostly involved older retirees, and she was certainly not in that category.

According to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, by mid-May, it had received 6,736 applications for voluntary settlement on minibonds, of which 4,970 cases have been dealt with, representing about 20 per cent of the number of investors qualified for compensation. Only a small percentage - 2,554 cases - involved elderly investors. This means Lam is not an exceptional case because, for every five investors, one has opted for voluntary settlement and has been compensated accordingly. There were also more than 3,000 voluntary settlements by the end of February, long before Lam's case. So, these allegations can easily be dismissed. Unfortunately, fact is often stranger than fiction.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator