A sick system

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 June, 2010, 12:00am

Being able to move on from the psycho-political drama of this past year should be reason enough to celebrate, but this is also the time to think long and hard about where we are actually heading. Party politics will change in the city. The impasse on constitutional reform for the past five years has proved to be draining, drawing our social capital, while other issues - like ageing, pollution and income disparity, just to name a few - continue to simmer.

No matter how much and how beautifully our politicians sing the praises of democracy, it will not solve these problems. What democracy can do, however, is force politicians to think about the viable solutions to these problems.

The Democratic Party, with its still-fragile communication channel to the central government, will need to find new areas for engagement. Engagement without appeasement and senseless Beijing-bashing will be more effective in resolving long-standing conflicts. It will take time, and will require room for trial and error.

We will also need to look at - and have the moral courage to punish - what we have allowed some politicians to get away with in recent debates.

Making a joke about a person's illness, like insults and threats, is nothing new in Hong Kong. But where, previously, we have shied away from drawing a line, we must now put our foot down unless we want to end up with a democracy that is illiberal and vulgar - where common decency and basic respect are replaced by verbal lynching and ridicule.

While we may not be surprised by the vulgar insults flung by the so-called 'role models' in the League of Social Democrats, we should no longer tolerate them. 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung, protesting outside the Democratic Party headquarters last Monday, shouted (in the heat of the moment, he later claimed): 'Szeto Wah, has the cancer got into your brain?' There is no question over whether the insult was distasteful (it absolutely was); it was also unlawful. Disagreeing with Szeto, a veteran democrat who has been diagnosed with cancer, does not give anyone the right to vilify or ridicule him on the basis of his illness. Doing so would be in breach of the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, which considers having cancer a disability.

What Leung did that night - vilified a person's disability - he did again when he tried to justify his unlawful act inside the legislature last Thursday. This points to the sad state of our political culture. Not only was it unprecedented that we let a lawmaker break the law on disability discrimination in the very chambers that passed it, but allowing Leung to engage in the unlawful act twice, and to feel that these acts were justified due to political differences, was also insulting to our rule of law, our law-making instruments and our democratic principles.

No amount of rhetoric can justify his verbal assault that infringed on the basic human right to life and dignity. For the people and the future of Hong Kong's democracy, the Equal Opportunities Commission should conduct a formal investigation into the blatant breach of the ordinance, and allow our rule of law to prevail. It would serve as an important precedent in case law and should be used as the perfect case illustration in the commission's revised code of practice on the ordinance, which is currently under public consultation.

No one should be vilified or feel fear when they find themselves disagreeing with the League of Social Democrats. Leung, who obviously feels he is justified in his actions, in fact behaved more like a 'tyrant' than the 'champion for democracy' he claims to be. What good is an empty democracy based on fear and disrespect? What good is a democracy if elected leaders are above the law?

Condoning the conduct of Leung and his league friends, and the culture of infamy they advocate, will undermine common decency and damage our social fabric; allowing this behaviour to fester, much like cancer does, will only harm our democratic development.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA