Poor in spirit

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

Every Christmas, a personal tradition for me is to re-read the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. That's because there's very little Christmas spirit left, and there is less of it each time our calendars reach December 25. An indictment of 19th-century industrial capitalism, A Christmas Carol is as relevant today as ever. Last Christmas, Archbishop Paul Kwong questioned our 'nimby' mentality and called on society to show greater concern for the deprived and disadvantaged. Bah! Humbug! Today, we still can't figure out in whose backyards we should erect columbariums.

This Christmas, the archbishop called on the government and individuals to show more love and care for the poor, while the Scrooges hoarding all the cash should be less greedy. And for the rest of us? Less hate for each other, especially for 'the rich'.

Bah! Humbug! We are still busy pinching our 'public pennies' and arguing over whether the government should have sent chartered flights to London to get our children home for Christmas. 'They are rich kids,' some say, believing that to be the reason they should remain stranded. They rationalise that further by saying: 'Well, they are sent there to learn to be independent, this is their final exam.'

Nice going, Scrooges. If we slam the government for not sending chartered flights to Bangkok for stranded holidaymakers, why should we not try to get our children home? Even if we assume that they are, indeed, all 'rich', that has nothing to do with it.

Let's start with the fact that children, by definition, need to be looked after. Citing heroic recollections of dealing with hardships in our youth and using the opportunity to condemn today's youth for being whiners and weak is a bit 'rich' itself, not to mention a shameless display of schadenfreude.

Yes, they probably whine a lot, but those who aren't studying overseas whine a lot, too. And who's to say that we older folks (God bless us, every one!) were all as sweet and tough as Tiny Tim. There's no reason to discriminate based on their parents' bank account statements. Add that to the fact that human advancement means we try to make the world a better place for future generations so that the hardships faced by previous ones become less hard. Just as being stranded in airports isn't part of some initiation process for adulthood, studying abroad isn't exactly like walking into conflict on the Korean Peninsula; we can make it less painful than it was in our era.

The real debate, of course, is not about whether the 'rich kids' deserve to have public money spent on them, but whether chartered flights sent to replace flights grounded due to weather safety reasons would make sense, and whether these children are taken care of before Mother Nature ends her tantrum.

The archbishop's message isn't just about being generous with our money. It's about being kind and understanding to others; we, too, are Scrooges when we look out only for ourselves, and punish people because of their perceived wealth.

There are many reasons we seem to have succumbed to 'nimby', selfish and hateful mindsets. Confrontational politics plays a huge role in cultivating that culture. With elections coming up in the next two years, and with this year's tectonic shifts in party politics, it is probably safe to say that political vultures will continue to feed off our social divides.

But it's that time of the year, and my cynicism is still on holiday, so maybe there is room for hope. Looking back on 2010, the Manila hostage tragedy stood out as Hong Kong's defining moment of the year. Tragedy brought a divided people together and the outpouring of kindness was something we have not seen for a long time. If we can do more of that in our daily lives, keep our antagonistic obsessions in check, maybe we can rekindle that lost spirit of Christmas. Genuine goodwill may just trump all the negativity. After all, it just isn't New Year if we don't try to find insights from the lessons of 2010 to make things better for 2011.

God bless us, every one!

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