Jake's View

Goodbye consulates, and please just keep on going

In this world of phones, faxes, e-mail, SMS, satellites and post offices the role of the foreign consul appears a massive waste of taxpayers' money

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 4:53am

Consulates forced to move out of Central

SCMP headline, October 31

Back many centuries ago national governments (or what passed for them) had a problem when they wanted to talk to each other - no phone, no fax, no Web, no e-mail, no SMS, no satellites, no cable, no post office, no nothing.

Even if all they wanted to do was say "Hello", they had to get it on a piece of paper and give it to a special messenger who would then make an arduous and often hazardous journey of up to several weeks.

Someone then came up with a great idea.

Let's have a permanent representative in Otherland, he said, and let's have Otherland send us one of theirs too. That way we won't have to send messages back and forth all the time.

These ambassadors will know pretty much what their home governments think on any matter of importance.

Good thinking. Soon the world had not only ambassadors but fully staffed embassies and consulates from around the world in every major city.

Now switch to the 21st century. We have phone, fax, web, e-mail, SMS, satellites, cable, post offices, we have everything. Governments can talk to each other instantly whenever they want.

Yet we also still have fully staffed embassies and consulates from around the world in every major city. Why?

I very much doubt that all are needed for travel visas. No country wants to be swamped by illegal immigrants but, as you may have noticed, serious visa harassment comes only from countries to which no one wants to emigrate.

(We shall leave the United States out of this. It exists on a planet surrounded by aliens, little green-stick creatures with antennae on their heads. To the US immigration authorities we are all aliens.)

Then there is trade. These consulates supposedly encourage the export sales of their big national companies. Again, however, we are talking of days past.

Companies are no longer defined by national borders. Is Philips, with production plants and shareholders round the world, really Dutch? Is Volvo really Swedish?

It is my bet in any case, and I shall give you any odds you want, that the supposed beneficiaries of trade promotions organised by diplomats would walk away from them instantly if they had to pay for them.

The same goes for all of those foreign investment promotions. Not worth the money spent on them.

The world has outgrown 16th-century ideas of diplomacy. Most of what these consuls now do is endless networking within their own foreign services to make sure they stay on the promotion machine, mixed with backbiting to establish their relative self-importance.

Find me a European consul in Hong Kong who does not, in private, snipe at his colleagues in Shanghai.

They are also big on gossip, endless conjecture on the palace politics of the countries to which they are posted. Journalists love it. They get lots of authoritative tittle-tattle that they can attribute to well-placed sources. But all of it is dead useless to the taxpayers at home, who pay the bills.

It is not my business, of course, if foreign governments want to throw their money away on the costly delusions of ambassadors and consuls but I am always pleased to see fiscal sense returning anywhere in the world. Keep moving out of Central, fellas. Keep moving after that, too.

And now I'll say my bit for Franklin Lam Fan-keung, who has taken a leave of absence from the Executive Council amid accusations that he benefited from inside knowledge in the sale of some property ahead of the new stamp duties.

I don't believe it for a second. Franklin was the property analyst at ABN Amro Asia while I acted as equities investment guru there and he is one of the straightest people I have ever met.

Jumping into the market on inside information is something he would never do. These accusations are nonsense.

Nor do I have any time for the subsequent allegations that he bribed a property agent. It simply isn't in him. This witch-hunt is way off track.