Cathay Pacific

Who's to blame?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 July, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong is a curious place. The public and the media seem to enjoy blowing things out of proportion and making a mountain out of a molehill. The universal belief that no news is good news will never be accepted in this city, where a culture of complaining has dominated our lives, allowing the media to thrive and prosper.

As a member of the Independent Police Complaints Council, I can confirm that our city is in the grip of a blame culture, cultivating distrust and fear. The police received more than 4,000 complaints last year, three-quarters of which were unsubstantiated, which indicates a trend of abusing the system.

Honestly speaking, our force is one of the most civilised in the world. I saw a TV news item on Thursday which showed four officers gently carrying away a protester in the July 1 rally while a fifth was holding his belongings.

When a society becomes more open and its system more democratic, it's natural for people to complain more about things. Hongkongers lived for many years under British rule, with limited freedom, democracy and human rights. With an end to those controls, attitudes have naturally swung to the other extreme.

But enjoying freedom and democracy doesn't mean one can recklessly push the boundaries for personal gain, disregarding civic duties and moral responsibility. That kind of selfish political-social attitude, which represents only the needs and wishes of ordinary people, will lead to populism.

A couple of recent incidents in which Cathay Pacific plane engines malfunctioned show the problems of this kind of attitude. One involved a flight to Amsterdam, in which an engine needed to be replaced. Another affected a flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong, when an engine malfunctioned shortly before take-off. And because it needed immediate repairs and the necessary spare parts were not available locally, they had to be flown in from Hong Kong. As a result, the flight was delayed until the next day.

Neither situation was unique to Cathay, but they demonstrated the fact that many people believe the consumer is always right - and insist on complaining even though there are reasonable explanations. Not only did they criticise the airline for being ill prepared to tackle emergency situations, but they also slammed the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) and the airline for a lack of transparency in reporting such incidents.

The sad thing is that this attitude is also widespread in much of the local media. By exaggerating incidents, the media is essentially sparking unnecessary worry and anger.

I believe some of the fundamental causes of this culture of complaint are the many deep-rooted political and social conflicts in Hong Kong. Increasing public dissatisfaction with government, plus other economic and political factors, have given rise to a scapegoat mentality, affecting the public's attitude towards civil servants. This has forced many officials to retreat into their cocoons in the belief that doing the minimum is the best policy to avoid making mistakes.

Good and reasonable complaints can help improve the quality of life and governance, but mere addiction to complaining serves no useful purpose. The recent Cathay cases were insignificant, but we shouldn't forget the Surabaya incident in April. A flight from the Indonesian city caught fire while landing in Hong Kong on one engine, and passengers had to be evacuated. The CAD has still not published its investigation findings. If the media were doing its job, it would try to get the real story from CAD officials.

On the same subject, there is an urgent need for an independent transport accident investigation bureau to centralise all investigations into air, sea and land accidents. At present, air incidents come under the CAD, sea mishaps are probed by the Marine Department and road accidents are investigated by the Transport Department. This set-up is inappropriate because they are the regulators, and they should not double as investigators. If our media wants to fulfil its social responsibility, this is the story reporters should be chasing.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator