Drunk on rhetoric

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 December, 2010, 12:00am

Are we 'anti-rich'? This is the question I've been struggling with for the past few months, and I'm still at a loss for an answer.

But let's assume we are. The 'anti-rich current' stems from our wealth disparity and is fuelled by the global financial crisis. But Hong Kong was once the place people came for opportunities, a better life and, well, to get rich. That was before the doors of the mainland were opened to the world and because of arguably the greatest anti-rich revolution of all times.

That is precisely why I doubt we are truly anti-rich. Hong Kong, without enterprise, just isn't quite right. And when a Catholic priest likens the richest man in Hong Kong to the devil - even if it's at a Halloween party - we know something is definitely amiss.

Whether or not it was appropriate for Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai to make those comments, the real issue, of course, is the discontent he echoed in his provocative statement: that wealth is skewed to only a handful, that property is a disproportionally large chunk of our economy, and that social mobility seems to have been stifled since the days of our grandparents.

Those who disagree with Law may brush his statement off as just another manifestation of the city's anti-rich sentiment. But what people are most likely angry about are not the rich per se, but the Scrooges who are unwilling to share the wealth, who engage in anti-competitive practices, who stymie the spirit of enterprise and who rob us of equal opportunities. But this is not an issue of good versus evil.

Law isn't the pioneer of Hong Kong's populist rhetoric. The idea that the rich are evil and that every social problem we have is part of a class conflict has long been propagated by the League of Social Democrats.

But its brand of populist narrative is problematic - it oversimplifies everything. Adding 'poor versus rich' to the mix of every social, economic and political question almost guarantees more problems.

It's fair to say, though, that drink-driving is probably evil. When people under the influence of alcohol or drugs get behind the wheel, they put their lives and those of others at risk. So, when legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip from the league raised the issue of class last week in his argument against life-long driving bans for repeat offenders, we knew his populist addiction had gone terribly wrong.

Chan's argument goes like this: rich people convicted of repeated drink-driving can hire chauffeurs to drive them around. Poor people who make their living as professional drivers will lose their jobs if they repeatedly drink and drive. Therefore, a life-long suspension is bad for the poor.

So, taking away the driver's licences of the drunk rich is ineffective because they can afford a sober chauffeur, while taking away the poor's right to drink-drive is oppression?

Chan is not only wrong, he's out of his mind. If a person who makes a living by driving insists that he drives when he is drunk, he can't be allowed to continue doing so just because he is poorer than the guy who can afford a chauffeur.

Drivers - whether they are rich or poor - should not be driving drunk, period. No one has the right to drink and drive, and blaming the rich and absolving the poor makes no sense at all.

Issues like drink-driving aren't a rich-versus-poor issue. Dividing problems solely along class lines and fitting every social ill into a box of either good or evil, rich or poor, is incredibly easy - and lazy. It robs real debates of their substance.

Last week, the real debate was about how much 'tolerance' our politicians are willing to demonstrate when they say they have 'zero tolerance' for substance abuse and putting innocent lives at risk by drink-driving. However, it's now just another anti-rich issue.

I'm probably not anti-rich. I'm anti-Scrooge and anti-anti-intellectual.

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