Donald Tsang

Manila's ignorance of Hong Kong affairs an insult

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 August, 2010, 12:00am

The botched handling of the hostage drama in Manila has been widely criticised, not least by Filipinos themselves, and an investigation is supposedly in train to find out what went wrong, although much of it was pretty evident to anyone watching television.

The so-called SWAT team seemed baffled much of the time, with no tactics other than to scurry around in a crouched position from one end of the tour bus to the other. The assault on the bus took an hour, marked by such feeble efforts as a lone policeman swinging a sledgehammer at a bus window.

There seems little doubt that the eight Hong Kong tourists who perished need not have died were it not for the incompetence of the police, who provoked the hijacker - former senior inspector Rolando Mendoza - by arresting and manhandling his brother, also a police officer, in public.

To add insult to injury, aides of Philippine President Benigno Aquino refused to put repeated calls made by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen through to him.

Later, one of his assistants said the president was too busy directing operations to take the call, only to be contradicted by Aquino himself, who said his policy was 'to let the ground commanders who are the experts in this field handle the operation with minimal interference from people who are less expert'.

After Tsang held a press conference and said he had been unable to speak to Aquino, the Philippine leader said nobody had told him about it. It turned out that Aquino had told his staff that he would not take any call unless it was extremely important. Tsang's call was, evidently, not considered important enough, even as his constituents were the ones whose lives were in danger.

Now, we are told, the staff members did not recognise the name 'Donald Tsang' and did not know he was the Hong Kong leader.

This is a sad commentary on the Philippines and its knowledge of Chinese and Hong Kong affairs. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. In the years leading up to the handover, the Philippine government feared that Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong would not be allowed to continue to work after the 1997 change of sovereignty.

As a result, then president Fidel Ramos, during a visit to Beijing in March 1996, raised the issue with then premier Li Peng and was assured that under the 'one country, two systems' policy, Hong Kong would make its own economic, immigration and labour policies.

However, this evidently did not sink in because, in 2003, when Hong Kong decided to impose a HK$400 monthly levy on employers of foreign domestic helpers and, at the same time, reduce the minimum wage of such helpers by the same amount, the Philippine government again thought that Beijing made such decisions for Hong Kong.

Then foreign secretary Blas Ople asked the central government to stop Hong Kong cutting the wages of Filipino domestic helpers here.

Now, 13 years after the handover, it seems Manila still does not realise that Hong Kong, while part of China, is a special administrative region that enjoys a high degree of autonomy and that its chief executive is on a par with heads of state in such international organisations as the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum.

The only names Philippine officials recognise, it seems, are those of Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Ambassador Liu Jianchao .

Aquino owes an apology to Hong Kong and to our chief executive. Before that happens, no more Hong Kong tourists should go to the Philippines.

Incompetence in the Philippines is by no means limited to the police force.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.