Typhoon Haiyan

When Typhoon Haiyan struck, moral leadership was required in Hong Kong

Bernard Chan says we should have put hostage issue aside more quickly

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 November, 2013, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

I am vice-chairman of Oxfam Hong Kong. When the first news came through of the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, I took a special interest in seeing how local charities would respond.

Normally, locally based relief agencies react to disasters like Haiyan by quickly seeking donations from the public and using those funds to aid victims. On this occasion, however, at least some locally based charities say they initially felt uncertain about what to do. The public mood seemed hostile towards the Philippines, owing to the ongoing dispute over apologies and compensation for the 2010 Manila bus hostage tragedy.

Hong Kong carried on demanding a response while [others] rushed to offer help

The shootings of those innocent Hong Kong people in Manila were shown live on TV, and were a huge shock to this community.

It is understandable that the public here supported calls for apologies and compensation from the Philippines - even if it was perhaps unrealistic to expect a foreign government to meet such requests. It was hardly surprising that some of our local politicians got involved in providing assistance to victims' families.

It was extremely unfortunate, however, that this controversy grew into such a big issue just as a massive humanitarian disaster struck the Philippines. The international media noticed, and reported how Hong Kong carried on demanding a response from Manila while the rest of the world rushed to offer sympathy and help.

In retrospect, our politicians should have taken a clearer lead and immediately and publicly put the bus issue to one side. In fairness to our officials, there were delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations going on with Manila counterparts around that time. More than anything else, however, they found themselves facing a possibly ugly public mood.

In media interviews I gave as more details of the disaster started to come in, I suggested that Hong Kong suspend its threatened "ultimatum" for a while. It seemed a reasonable thing to say. But the reaction on one newspaper's blog and elsewhere was vicious. When I pointed out that Filipino domestic helpers make a major contribution to many Hong Kong families, some responded that it is Hong Kong that helps them.

In effect, the mood was unpleasant, selfish and uncaring. Charities couldn't be sure that if they made appeals for donations, the Hong Kong public would respond as generously as usual.

However, the story gets better. There were soon signs that the insensitivity we saw was not universal or even typical. Within days of the disaster, our officials were acting swiftly to get Legislative Council approval for HK$40 million government funds to help the Philippines. Oxfam Hong Kong launched a HK$500,000 drive, which has since gone on to attract millions in donations. Major companies quickly announced big donations, and Indonesian and Filipino residents were collecting money. Individual donations were soon coming in. Then stories started to circulate about Hong Kong employers giving their Filipino helpers loans, donations and time off to help families back home.

In short, just as things seemed quite depressing, Hong Kong's generous and compassionate side came through. I am glad to say that, so far as I can see, the insensitive and callous attitudes displayed in the first few days of the disaster reflected an angry and sometimes publicity-seeking minority, not mainstream Hong Kong.

There is an important lesson here. With emotions running high over the bus tragedy, people seemed uncertain what to do or say. But when it comes to a clear moral issue like helping neighbours in distress, our government leaders, politicians, media and other opinion-makers have to take a public stand and do it quickly.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council