Out for the count?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 October, 2010, 12:00am

Laziness is not a description associated with Hongkongers, who are known to be among the hardest working people in the world. We are pragmatic, and passionate when it comes to issues we care deeply about. Seven years ago, half a million people marched in opposition to the proposed Article 23 national security legislation, resulting not only in the shelving of the legislation, but also the resignation of key officials. Hongkongers proved that being pragmatic does not equate to being politically apathetic.

Since then, our government and political parties have become more sensitive to numbers - public opinion polls, political rally attendances, popularity ratings. The prominence given to numbers is arguably a good thing; it forces leaders to take the public pulse before making any decision, and it gives voice to Hongkongers' opinions on a variety of issues.

Our participation in the political process is much more than casting votes. Deliberative democracy involves those governing and the governed in policy discussions, where, in theory, parties of different social backgrounds and even conflicting interests can have an equal say on issues of public interest.

Recall the months leading up to the historic march in the summer of 2003, and the 'white vs blue bill' debate then over the room for public participation. That experience, no doubt, is a reason the government now seeks public input on issues.

Recently concluded, ongoing and upcoming public consultations show a long list of concerns: subsidised housing, columbarium policy, protection for consumers against unfair trade practices, the hosting of the 2023 Asian Games, a strategy to reduce the city's carbon footprint, the West Kowloon Cultural District design concepts, the establishment of an independent insurance authority, and the voluntary medical coverage plans.

Yet, responses have been underwhelming.

Judging by the ongoing heated debate over housing, one would expect that the issue would attract more than the 800-plus opinions and 5,300 Facebook responses the Transport and Housing Bureau has reportedly received.

The consultation on columbarium sites was launched with such staunch objections from a portion of the Sha Tin community that it elicited the chief executive's 'nimby' comment. Yet, it received only 520 opinions.

Are these consultations 'much ado about nothing'? Certainly, the issues they cover are important. Take for example the upcoming consultation on voluntary medical insurance coverage. This involves our wallets, the public purse and the growing burden of an ageing population on our public health system. These are reasons enough to think through the proposal and submit our thoughts on it to the authorities. Even if we believe the plan is wide of the mark, those views must be made known and included as part of the public record.

Some of us continue to endure physical discomfort - heat and hunger, for example - to make ourselves heard. But most of us, perhaps due to the onslaught of public consultation exercises, have succumbed to the social psychological phenomenon known as the 'bystander effect'; we diffuse responsibility to others when it comes to civic action, expecting everyone else to respond instead. The problem with that, of course, is that everyone expects the next person to speak up for them.

Unfortunately, this is when public consultations become self-defeating exercises. Some may argue, as do opponents of deliberative democracy, that all this fuss over getting the public involved is unnecessary in a representative democracy. But if elections were enough, the Tea Party Movement would not have taken off in the United States.

As Hong Kong moves forward on its democratic path, we must remember that democracy is not simply about voting rights, but also active participation in the decision-making process. That is what July 1, 2003 was all about.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA