There has been an outpouring of feedback and emotion since the Equal Opportunities Commission launched the first review of anti-discrimination legislation last month. The fact that some 1,000 submissions were received in the first part of a four-month consultation underlines the heated response in the community. The watchdog itself even became a target of criticism from all sides during an earlier open hearing. The response is hardly surprising as the exercise touches on a wide range of controversial issues, such as tensions with mainlanders and job benefits for unmarried heterosexual and gay couples.
This does not justify sensational attacks. Recently, rational discussion has been drowned out by criticism, some of which apparently stems from misconception or bias. For instance, critics say outlawing discrimination against mainlanders will provoke locals and fuel more cross-border tension. They also fear the use of "locust" and other derogatory terms will become a punishable offence. Some anti-gay groups accused commissioner Dr York Chow Yat-ngok of building an "illegal structure above the marriage law" by extending job benefits for married couples to live-in partners. Some firms threaten to withdraw benefits for spouses and dependents as a result. Chow now faces calls to step down.
The attacks are regrettable. The commission has been tasked with promoting equality and weeding out discrimination. It would not be doing its job properly if it shied away from championing what it believes to be right.
That said, the commission should be mindful of the different beliefs and convictions held across different sectors. While everyone should be treated with equality and respect, the reality is that prejudice and bias prevail in all societies. The commission should double its efforts to explain the rationale behind the proposed changes. Changes in mindset and behaviour take time. Without public support, the crusade against discrimination will fail to succeed.