Fred Ma Si-hang knows first hand that political heat and smoke can obscure the big picture. He was the government official blamed for the penny stocks debacle that wiped more than HK$10 billion off the value of the stock exchange in a day in 2002. That made him unpopular, to say the least. Six years later, when he resigned as commerce secretary on health grounds, he was one of the city's most popular politicians. He is, therefore, well qualified to reflect on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's trial by low popularity ratings, conflicted governance and lack of progress on electoral reform. He recalls that it took him years to rebuild relationships with some pan-democrat lawmakers and he sees signs of hope for Leung in that "he is starting to . . . liaise more frequently with different political parties".
He sees the current political row stemming from a schoolteacher's abuse of police as symptomatic of Hongkongers' tendency to focus on relatively trivial, one-off disputes at the expense of important long-term issues such as the city's competitiveness. He recalled that in the 1990s Hong Kong completed more than HK$100 billion worth of airport and airport-related construction projects in about six years. Asking what we have done in the last six years, he says it is time for the community to look beyond micro issues and focus on how the city can move forward, before it is overtaken by fast-growing economies such as Singapore and Shanghai.
Ma is the second respected establishment figure in recent days to have expressed a positive view about the participation of a pan-democrat candidate in the 2017 election of a chief executive by universal suffrage. Earlier, Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing said Beijing would be unlikely to veto a mildly pan-democratic candidate. Ma went further and said effective political reform could act like a medicine to cure the present negative political climate.
If so, reaching consensus on the means of nominating candidates is arguably the single most important step that needs taking towards restoring effective governance. Leung and central government liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming have broken the ice by sitting down to lunch and dinner with pan-democrats. These social events have opened the way for dialogue on how to find a democratic process that all parties can accept. The participants could do worse than cultivate a quality attributed to Ma by pan-democrat leaders when he resigned: he was a good listener.