Donald Tsang

Different wavelength

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 April, 2010, 12:00am


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Over lunch some time back with a high-ranking government official, I popped a recurring question: why is one of the world's finest harbours so inaccessible to the people? Not true, the official countered, bragging about a new waterfront walk by the Macau Ferry Pier.

Curious, I sought it out. Finding it next to a bus terminus heavy with fumes startled me momentarily. Still, there it was. My waterfront walk lasted all of one minute, after which the path suddenly ended with a fenced-off area. How could that be? I detoured to cut back on the other side. The promenade continued for another 30 seconds but then ended for good.

Taken on its own, the official's boast of a wonderful new waterfront walk was nothing more than exaggeration. But beyond that lies a troubling question. Were we even on the same wavelength? Do our officials understand that, when the people say they want their harbour back, they don't mean just a minute and a half's worth?

It is, of course, not just the harbour that makes you wonder if our officials are talking the same language as the people. It's everything, from high property prices and fair wages to public resentment over the excessive power of the tycoons. Are our leaders in tune with the people on all these things? Do they really know how to get inside the heads of the people?

Beijing didn't think so five years ago, when it publicly admonished the unpopular then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa for not thinking like the people in formulating policies. Tung owned up to it but, by then, he had already been in office for nearly eight years.

Beijing is sending that same message again, this time directed at Tung's successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who has been instructed to fix Hong Kong's 'deep-rooted' conflicts. Tsang fudged for a while before admitting that we do indeed have deep-rooted problems.

What are we to conclude from these Beijing directives? That mainland leaders understand us more than our own leaders? Why must it take prompting by Beijing before our own leaders act? Hongkongers, of course, don't really think Beijing is more in tune with us but you'll have no trouble finding plenty of them who truly believe our officials live in a world of their own.

And they do. It was fine when our former colonial officials lived in it. They were colonialists, after all. The people grudgingly accepted them as masters on fat salaries who were here to rule them, not to understand them. Our current officials still haven't exited from that world. They act like it's their right to be there.

It's not so much things like excessive pay, generous pensions, education allowances, housing subsidies and health care that infuriate the people, especially now when the rich-poor gap is so wide. It's more the mentality of the officials, their self-importance, and the way they behave as if they're rulers rather than servants of the people.

When elected politicians feel they're losing touch with the people, they go to the people. Even US presidents do that. They go to small towns, they rediscover what the people are thinking and they reconnect with them. That's how they get elected.

Our top officials don't have to worry about elections. Our so-called accountability system exists only in name. There is, therefore, no pressing need to understand the people. Their jobs are not at risk. And, if their jobs are secure, there is no pressure to understand that understanding the people is part of their job. The result is a well-paid but lumbering bureaucracy which is always behind the curve.

And if you're clueless about what the people are thinking, how can you possibly understand their anguish over such things as being trapped between appallingly low wages and disgustingly high home prices or the fact that 13 per cent of our young people are doing worse in education and income than their parents in this hi-tech age of prosperity?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster