Blinded by rules

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 September, 2010, 12:00am

If you saw an eight-tonne hunk of steel rolling into the sea, would you be stupid enough to try stopping it with your leg? Most people would just get out of the way. Dockyard worker Lee Shing-leung didn't do that. He tried to stop it with his right leg. Maybe he was indeed stupid, but in his mind he was just doing his job. He lost the leg.

That was three years ago. He's been hobbling around on crutches ever since, trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Well, not exactly. He's been trying to squeeze HK$1,280 a month in disability allowance from the government. That was him being stupid again: he should have tried the stone, instead.

Any thinking person who sees a 60-year-old crippled labourer with a limited education would conclude he'll have a hard time getting a job, especially in Hong Kong where most employers regard the disabled as a liability. But by their very nature bureaucrats are not thinking people - ours even less so, since they serve an unelected government whose survival is not dependent on thinking like the people.

That's why our bureaucrats did not conclude that Lee had little chance of finding work. They didn't think of him as a person. Their thought process capabilities are limited to the narrow confines of their rules and regulations. Anything outside that represents a brave new world of independent thinking which is alien to them.

When Lee applied for disability allowance the bureaucrats - aided by equally bureaucratic government doctors - did not see a manual labourer with a missing leg nearing old age, which made him virtually unemployable. They robotically reached for their rule books, which instructed them to regard Lee as a robot, too. So they saw a machine with a damaged part but still in 40 per cent working order. Five times he applied for help. Five times they saw a 40 per cent functioning machine.

You may see Lee as simply an unfortunate fellow who's somehow fallen through the cracks of a government support system. Or, like the bureaucrats, you may even consider him greedy for wanting public assistance when he's still got two arms and a leg. But if we have rules to filter out questionable greed, why aren't they equally applied to, say, property developers who dupe you with fake sea views or exaggerated flat sizes?

Who is greedier: the one-legged Lee who wants a HK$1,280-a-month government disability allowance because no one will hire him, or tycoon Lee Shau-kee, whose company marketed a 46th-floor penthouse as the 'lucky' 88th floor to fetch a higher price?

It is easy to dismiss labourer Lee's luckless three-year odyssey as just one of those things we should not read too much into. Actually, you can read a lot into it. Do not see it as a simple case of someone unqualified for disability allowance. Look instead at the rigid rules that disqualified him.

Rigid rules landed an ice-cream vendor in court for selling candy as well; and an elderly, partially disabled woman hawker for selling combs on a street corner. But where are the rigid rules for the supermarket chains that fake sales? Or the rich businessmen who deface our countryside with private villas?

Lee's case is not the reason why there is now such a gaping disconnect between the people and the government, why there is growing animosity towards the elite, and why people feel we have an unfair system.

There is no one single reason. But it can help you understand why there are such sentiments.

When the bureaucrats said 'no' to Lee, it wasn't because of the HK$1,280. They just couldn't see his side of things, only theirs. They can see why the business community wants a pricey, high-speed rail link to Guangzhou, but not why parents want money spent on smaller class sizes for their children.

They can see why property developers fear government-subsidised homes for hard-pressed families, but not why hard-pressed families want such homes. Lee helped us see more clearly this government blindness.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster