Donald Tsang

Disturbing reactions to a tragedy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

Looking back, hopefully with a degree of perspective, on the Manila hostage tragedy, I am left with a sense of deep disquiet about the attitudes of the Hong Kong government, politicians and much of the media. Tragedies usually bring out the best in people. But they can also sometimes reveal some unpleasant attitudes. In that category is the extraordinary outpouring of media hype and officially sponsored grief.

The 80,000-strong march involving most political parties; the official presence at private funerals; the one-minute silences: what really was the motive behind this unprecedented, high-profile public mourning for private people? What really was behind the calls for travel boycotts and other measures against the Philippines and Filipinos?

In the wake of the tragedy, there were reports of sackings and attacks on Filipino maids, prompting appeals not to let this become a racial issue. But a racial issue it undoubtedly was in Hong Kong where locals are masters and Filipinos are servants.

For sure, the families and friends of the victims had every reason for fury at the gunman for taking innocent foreign lives in pursuit of a local and personal grudge. Every reason, too, to be angry at the Manila police for questionable negotiating tactics and a bungled rescue operation.

And yet the city treated this as an international incident focused more on the Philippine government than the gunman. Beijing itself initially joined the chorus, demanding an explanation and proper protection for its citizens. It soon saw the danger of inciting too much xenophobia and closed down mainland media discussion of the issue. But it does want to see more national and ethnic consciousness in Hong Kong, so it was no surprise that the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong was in the forefront of protests and demands.

Some media described the incident as 'Hong Kong's 9/11', even though there was never any suggestion that the gunman was ideologically or politically motivated, or that it was anything other than chance that his victims were Hong Kong Chinese. The 9/11 comparison made Manila appear culpable rather than just incompetent.

The Hong Kong government made much of the inability of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to get through to President Benigno Aquino. But this seems to have been mainly due to administrative fumbles on all sides.

All this was in sharp contrast to the low-key official responses to past tragedies with much larger death tolls. How much public mourning was organised for the 19 unfortunates killed in the 2008 bus crash on the road to Sai Kung? Where was the official outrage and calls for travel bans when 14 tourists died in Egypt in 2006? Or for the four who died in January's building collapse in To Kwa Wan, almost certainly caused by negligence? Or the 41 who died in the Garley building fire of 1996, a consequence in part of government failure to make businesses obey fire regulations? The killing of innocent tourists by the mad or aggrieved can, and does, happen anywhere. Two Filipino tourists were hacked to death in Tiananmen Square in 2007 by a deranged Chinese. Did Manila sponsor an outpouring of public anger or demand that its policemen conduct their own crime-scene investigation in Beijing?

A Hong Kong that claims to be 'Asia's World City' needs to examine its own attitudes to the peoples of Southeast and South Asia, from which come our servant population of 265,000 - 7 per cent of the workforce.

As for Tsang and his team, if they really cared about Hong Kong peoples' well-being, they would not be making a lot of noise about a tragedy that was beyond their competence and control. They would stop denying the close connection between the air pollution and current and future deaths from pollution-related diseases. They could easily save 8,000 lives.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator