Out of step
At first they brushed it off as sour grapes. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen didn't even bother to mince words. Sore losers whining - that was essentially what he said. But, day by day, the media uncovered more and more cases of suspected voter fraud in last month's district council elections. A trickle turned into a flood. By the last count, there were some 800 cases of suspected irregularities.
Is it the tip of an iceberg of massive vote-rigging? It's too early to say. But it's not too early to ask if the election outcome was legitimate, or if we're heading for a confidence crisis over our election process. Concern, however, doesn't appear evident among our top officials. Denial does.
That was underlined by the monotone response of Chief Secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung last week when it emerged that the Audit Commission had identified voter registration loopholes back in 2006. Lam wouldn't admit the system is flawed. Rather, he said the commission's concerns had been dealt with.
If they were, how come the latest election still produced hundreds of suspected vote-rigging cases? In fact, as the audit commissioner noted, the government had ignored some of his key 2006 recommendations that would have tightened the voter registration system against fraud.
Lam's dismissive demeanour, though distressing, did not surprise me. It is endemic of our top bureaucrats. They see things not as people but as bureaucrats. Former security secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, now a legislator, has admitted as much, describing our bureaucrats as living in a cloistered world of their own.
That is why they could not sense the public's alarm when the media revealed the first cases of suspected voter fraud. That is why, when fire swept through the maze of market stalls in Fa Yuen Street a year ago, officials could not sense the fear among district politicians and residents that another inferno was waiting to happen, as it did last week.
After last week's tragedy, officials mouthed their usual mantra that they had taken all the necessary steps to prevent a repeat following last year's fire, just like Lam had insisted all steps were taken in 2006 to prevent voter fraud. Yet vote-rigging did occur, as did a repeat of the Fa Yuen fire.
It is, of course, impossible to make voting foolproof against fraud or a place completely fireproof. But the vote-rigging and last week's suspected arson were so preventable that we did not require a foolproof system to prevent them.
Our bureaucrats probably did take all the steps they thought necessary; they implemented bureaucratic solutions. How could they do otherwise when they see the maze of market stalls, sub-divided flats and blocked stairwells as a bureaucratic problem to be dealt with, not a problem involving people?
I attended a recent function where the guest of honour was a top bureaucrat. He arrived with his handlers, strode on stage, said his stuff, engaged in a few minutes of small talk with his hosts and then abruptly left, surrounded by his handlers. The ordinary people in the room were invisible to him. Even the president of the United States doesn't behave so haughtily.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV host. email@example.com