In today's Hong Kong, the underdog no longer wins the day

Mike Rowse says we're the worse for HKTV's defeat in the licence saga

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 4:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 4:36am

I cried when Paul Potts won the first Britain's Got Talent contest in 2007. There he was, the archetypal Mr Average: crooked teeth, shapeless clothes, stuck in a dead-end job. But when he opened his mouth, this glorious voice immediately made an impact. In the opening bars of Nessun Dorma, to the untrained ear, he sounded like Pavarotti. It was very moving.

But the competition was fierce: how could an opera singer stand a chance?

He stuck to his talent, this Welshman singing in Italian, beat the lot of them in nationwide voting, and went on to make records and perform in concerts around the world.

He showed that, however humble your beginnings, you could make it if you worked very hard and had a bit of luck along the way. In effect, though he was a long way away, he lived the Hong Kong dream.

In 2009, the same contest produced a woman who looked even less like a potential star: Susan Boyle, nearly 50 and never been kissed. But when she sang I Dreamed A Dream, it gave you goose bumps. She, too, went on to success.

Without wishing to stretch the analogy too far, our own chief executive election in 2012 had a whiff of the same character. Henry Tang Ying-yen, wealthy background, series of important positions secured seemingly effortlessly, against the police constable's son from a humble background, Leung Chun-ying.

On a personal level, Henry comes across as a pretty nice guy: likes a drop of wine, has an eye for the ladies - what could be more normal than that?

On the other hand, what made him "one of them", a representative of the privileged classes, was that enormous illegal basement, more than four times the size of the average home and built seemingly unknown to him under his very own luxury home. That left the way clear for the self-made professional, Leung, to pitch himself as the underdog and achieve a surprise, come-from-behind victory. Another success story for the Hong Kong dream.

All of which is by way of introduction to the saga of the free-to-air TV licences. The Executive Council decided to overrule the Broadcasting Authority and issue two new licences instead of the recommended three, and award those two to existing holders of pay-TV licences. Both decisions in my view were wrong.

The best decision would have been to issue a licence to all three applicants and let the market decide. The second-best decision would have been to issue only one new licence, to HKTV, and make the existing players wait until the new guy had had a chance to build market share.

But, in the event, the sole loser was the self-made man Ricky Wong Wai-kay. He had made his fortune by taking on the big guys in the telecoms field and providing a service the public wanted. He had sold up to gamble big and try to achieve the same shake-up in the staid television market. But he lost out to the forces of privilege and inherited wealth.

For the one man who believed in the Hong Kong dream, it has all ended in tears.

Most people spend their lives slowly adjusting to the reality that they are normal and will have an ordinary spell on Earth. When Paul and Susan sang, they gave us a glimpse of that other world, where ordinary people can achieve exceptional success.

Ricky has been our representative in the entrepreneurial version of that contest. When he lost the battle for a licence, we were all losers with him.

The government has won the fight in the Legislative Council against invocation of the Powers and Privileges Ordinance. But it will prove a Pyrrhic victory, because in the process they lost the hearts of Hong Kong people.

The Hong Kong dream has been betrayed.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.