Crisis shows it pays to invest in public services
Tragedies like the killing of eight Hong Kong tourists on the hijacked bus in Manila on Monday remind us of some deep realities: life is precious, and it is uncertain. One day a group of people fly off to enjoy themselves on a short trip overseas; a few days later, their friends and families have lost them forever. Those eight could have been any of us, or any of our loved ones.
We have no way of feeling the horror that the victims and survivors went through, but we can imagine the fear and anguish felt by their families back here in Hong Kong.
The government deserves recognition for being quick off the mark with help. Flights to Manila were quickly arranged, and security, social welfare and medical staff accompanied the relatives to help them and the survivors. A day after the tragedy, teams were standing by to look after the bereaved families when they returned.
I will leave it to experts to judge the performance of the Philippine authorities or police, though it seems that some officials in Manila have admitted that their special task force was not up to the job.
The fact is that the Philippines is not a wealthy place. Their public services simply do not have the sort of equipment and other resources that we take for granted here when there are emergencies.
The performance of our officials and frontline and specialist staff in response to this crisis was a tribute to their dedication, training and skill. It was also a reflection of the high standards that our community expects public servants to achieve. And, if we are honest, we will acknowledge that it is also partly due to our material and institutional wealth that the government is able to deliver services that keep up with high expectations.
It is worth remembering that this did not come about by chance. Half a century ago, the Philippines was the second-richest country in Asia, beaten only by Japan. Corruption and mismanagement led to serious relative decline. Hong Kong, meanwhile, tackled corruption and developed a government structure with a public service culture.
The result for Hong Kong is what we have today: an economically and socially developed city where we take for granted that public services will be top-class. We also expect frontline public servants to be polite and efficient. It is not just when I am in poorer countries in Asia that I notice the difference. I have seen uniformed personnel in some big, rich Western countries treat members of the public in ways that would never be tolerated here.
It is essential that we continue to build on this ethos, and this is where I have a problem with people who say all civil servants are paid much too highly, and public-sector pay should be frozen for years. There may be some instances where pay is out of line. But, on the whole, if civil service pay is what brings us the high standards of service we enjoy, I would say it is worth it.
Our top leaders, who often come in for criticism, also deserve credit in this case. We should not underestimate the complexity of co-ordinating all the different bureaus quickly and smoothly during a crisis like this. Perhaps the urgency of the situation helped: there was no time to worry about public reaction and try to manage the media. Officials' experience with such crises as the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu probably helped as well.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration showed that it can handle a crisis. Their response helped victims and the wider community come through a tragedy that has affected us all. It also reminded us how lucky we are, safe in our home city.
Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils