All in the same boat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 July, 2010, 12:00am

Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, infamously said that 'there is no such thing as society', a widely criticised assertion that came to haunt her for years. She would have done better articulating these views in Hong Kong, where a far more receptive audience would have offered applause rather than brickbats.

Barely a day passes without someone - often a quite important someone - articulating a version of this notion, albeit without the benefit of Thatcher's ideological framework.

Instead, they focus on the specifics, which usually begin with the words: 'Why should I pay for ...' This is generally a prelude to a moan about having to subsidise the poor and feckless, while self-righteously pointing out that they pay their own way.

There was a relatively minor but classically telling example of this when a reader wrote to this newspaper last week criticising a Cheung Chau resident who had pleaded for the ferry service to receive greater subsidy. The indignant critic stated that he lived in Sai Kung and could see no reason why he should be paying for ferries going to Cheung Chau.

Let us set aside the obvious fallacy of this reasoning which implies that Cheung Chau residents should not be paying for roads to Sai Kung, nor should they be expected to subsidise the provision of water and drainage anywhere other than where they live. Maybe even hospitals outside their catchment area should also be paid for by those in the vicinity. There is no end to this stupidity.

Here we have a prime example of people just not understanding what it means to live in society. Membership of a community is not a matter of cost-benefit analysis or a simple equation of putting in what you can take out. Society imposes a wider variety of obligations and benefits, the parameters of which are open to discussion, but at the heart of which is the understanding that communities depend on co-operation for the greater good.

The debate on this subject is hardly new; indeed, it is generally so passe as to be barely discussed elsewhere. But, here in Hong Kong, the fundamentals of society continue to be questioned. In part this is because of our bizarre political structure which enshrines and perpetuates the interests of privileged sectors by giving them representation in the legislature and thus obliging their representatives to focus on advancing sectoral interests.

Second- though this is changing - Hong Kong remains at heart an immigrant society, composed of tough self-reliant people who expect little of the state and are rarely disappointed. This produces a mindset where the interests of the group overwhelm the interests of wider society.

Third, and worryingly, post-colonial Hong Kong has clung tenaciously to the worst aspects of the old colonial era where divisions between the rulers and the ruled were absolute and where there was an odious culture of bestowing largesse on those less fortunate, in the certain knowledge that the system was designed to ensure that they would remain an underclass.

However, things are changing; a new generation is emerging that understands what society means. This generation has a keen interest in issues which address the future but is also concerned about heritage preservation, something that has been neglected by officials on the spurious grounds of progress, generally meaning the progress of the privileged.

There is a new urgency to debates in a whole host of areas, not just the obvious one about constitutional reform, but also over conservation matters and transparency in government, which is leading the new generation to question ways of doing things that appear to be set in stone but are built on the shifting sands of the establishment's interests.

These developments are not new. Hong Kong has a long tradition of brave and far-sighted individuals and organisations that work for the good of society, but they were always marginalised and dismissed as idealists.

Many of their ideas are now moving into the mainstream.

Clinging onto the old edifices of privilege and unrepresentative government comes at an increasing cost. And the patronising attitude of Hong Kong's ruling class is taking blows at every turn, as even government ministers discovered when they emerged from their cocoons to participate in recent street campaigns. Officials who thought they would at least be safe among schoolchildren faced instead the articulate questioning by the children; the poor old ministers were literally left open-mouthed.

Society has arrived in Hong Kong. It's a messy business and comes with no guarantees of universal happiness, but it's not going away - so get used to it.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur