The power of 'Oh, shut up'

Alice Wu looks at how the use of two simple words that pack a big punch could well transform Hong Kong's bickering political scene

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 3:53am

Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, former health minister and now head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, seems to have found a new voice after leaving government. The softly spoken man has proved many people wrong - and surprised the public - not only with his willingness to weigh in on issues, but also with his frank views.

On his first day at the commission, he spoke on voting rights and the need for Hong Kong to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, thereby pitting himself against some political heavyweights and dispelling critics' doubts about his "watchdog" credentials.

And by urging caution on government rules to limit sales of milk powder in Hong Kong, he showed he was not afraid to question the work of his former colleagues when needed. When his critics got personal - making assumptions about him based on his religious beliefs - he proved them wrong, too. And so the public learned an important lesson about not making assumptions.

Chow taught us another lesson last week. When asked to comment on the controversial suspension of Yu Cheuk-man, former head of cardiology at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Chow offered his considered view. Given his previous positions as health minister and chief executive at Queen Mary Hospital, he seemed perfectly entitled to do so, and his words should carry weight.

Whether the suspension of the heart specialist revealed management and teamwork issues within the hospital, as Chow suspects, that is something the Hospital Authority's independent investigation committee should look into. Meanwhile, Chow urged all parties to "shut up"; it was time for serious work to be done and the bickering to stop.

And this got me thinking about the history of the "shut up" in politics. It's not every day that one hears public figures telling people to "shut up". Those words surprised some in Australia last month, when opposition leader Tony Abbott phrased a historical put-down against his opponent, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, with "Does this guy ever shut up?" during a debate in Brisbane.

Earlier that month, on the eve of the US Senate's August recess on the other side of the world, US senator and majority leader Harry Reid told chatty senators to "sit down and shut up". The "Great Communicator" Ronald Reagan fought back against political hecklers when he was US president with "Oh, shut up!" more than once.

"Shut up" - two simple words that pack a big political punch - has been used, quite effectively, to taunt, rebuke, win debates and hit back at hecklers. Chow might just have been aiming his comment at the war of words over Yu's suspension controversy but, certainly, others can learn from his "shut up" dictum.

A few things come to mind, but as today is the first day of school for many children, this summer's curious case of foul-mouthed teacher Alpais Lam Wai-sze stands out. If only she had held her emotions in check, there wouldn't have been the subsequent war of words and the verbal diarrhoea of those who just won't shut up. And, as our legislators prepare to return to work, Chow may have happened upon a possible solution to the rowdiness within the chamber's walls.

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