Brits don't have such a great record

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2012, 12:00am


A recent opinion piece by Hugo Restall in the Wall Street Journal caused quite a stir. Headlined 'Hong Kong was better under the British', it details the scandals and controversies of our chief executive race and concludes that the Brits did better at running the city.

That rather upset my friend Angelo Paratico, a brilliant novelist, history buff and longtime Hong Kong resident, as that wasn't how he remembered it. So Angelo fired off a letter to this newspaper, which published it. But the list of British iniquities is long, while space is limited on the letters page.

There were drunken judges, a registrar general who consorted too closely with pirates and cutthroats, governors in the pocket of trading houses like Jardine Matheson. But our naughty editors cut out his favourite story about the police chief who ran a brothel in Wyndham Street.

But didn't things get better after the 1960s? Sure, that was when HSBC was our de facto central bank. Public service and efficiency at government departments were non-existent concepts. Nothing could be done at public hospitals unless you paid the nurses and caretakers. Public schools ran classes with 50 or more pupils. And racism was the order of the day.

I can already hear the Monty Python fans among you screaming the 'What have the Romans ever done for us' line from the Life of Brian. The Brits gave us the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a functioning civil service and a kick-ass economy.

Then again, many Asian autocrats worked miracles for their economies too: Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Suharto in Indonesia and Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang in Taiwan. Did someone mention China?

A new book, Ghosts of Empire, examines Britain's imperial legacy in six places: Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong, Kashmir and Burma.

As you can see from the list, Hong Kong was an exception, not the rule. We - and the Brits - just got very lucky.