Equality watchdog is growling again

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 May, 2010, 12:00am

The words and actions of Lam Woon-kwong since he became chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission in February show that the EOC may, once again, play its intended role as the primary champion of human rights and equality in Hong Kong.

This was indicated within weeks of his taking the job when, in an article in this newspaper, he defined his role as 'a defender and advocate of human rights and equal opportunities'. This was a breath of fresh air. Finally, here was a chairman who actually saw his job as the champion of the downtrodden and the oppressed, willing to pick up the cudgels and fight on their behalf. He even said he would try to help those who suffered discrimination in areas not yet covered by law, such as sexual orientation. He has also proposed expanding the commission's powers so that it does not have to wait for complaints before initiating lawsuits.

Lam's attitude is quite different from that of his predecessor, Raymond Tang Yee-bong. Tang did not identify with victims of discrimination but instead saw his role as that of a regulator, defining the rules of the game.

During his tenure, codes of practice issued by the EOC were ridiculed by some as devices that let employers, for example, get away with discrimination.

Lam's appointment was initially met with some scepticism because of his background in the top echelons of the civil service. But he assured sceptics that he would not hesitate to take a tough stance 'no matter who is the source of that discrimination'. He has already been very critical of the government for exempting itself from the provisions of the Race Discrimination Ordinance.

In recent media interviews, he has shown that one of his first priorities is to do something about basic problems faced by the disabled - simple things like not being able to get around in wheelchairs. He is, quite rightly, focusing first on government buildings; if the government isn't making things easier for the disabled, developers are unlikely to take the lead.

For example, in yesterday's by-elections, about 15 per cent of polling stations were not accessible to the disabled - which could have prevented some people from exercising their right to vote. Other government facilities, too, fail to provide barrier-free access even though it has been a decade since the commission first expressed concern over access by wheelchairs.

Government planners have not deliberately discriminated against the disabled, of course. They are simply not sufficiently aware of the need to provide equal opportunities to everyone, including the disabled.

Lam proposes setting up a high-level, co-ordinating agency to ensure that existing facilities are improved. He is urging each department to earmark some of its annual budget for the cause.

Since he knows how the government works, Lam is probably in a better position to try to work the system than a total outsider would be. Clearly, as a former senior official, he realises that, without such a high-level agency, nothing would be done.

The agency's work should not be limited to improving existing facilities; it should also ensure that future government facilities are free of barriers to those in wheelchairs.

It is best to do this before construction begins, because making even minor improvements later can be a major hassle involving several government departments.

We are accustomed to environmental impact assessments before embarking on a project. Similar attention should be paid to the needs of the disabled, to enable them to be economically active and to contribute to society.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com