Fork in road to political reform need not cause Hong Kong's pan-democrats so much angst

Alice Wu says for pan-dems, short-term pain may be worth enduring in the long run

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 12:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 12:27am

Wait. Was Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor talking about M. Scott Peck's book, The Road Less Travelled, or the lines from Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by,"? This is not a useless trivia question. Lam has made it part of her constitutional reform package sales pitch - "Make It Happen" by taking "the road less travelled".

Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang used the phrase "the road less travelled" in 2007, to explain her decision to run in the Legislative Council by-election. Chan was channelling Frost then, saying she didn't want to have any regrets, as that is what many have taken Frost's poem to mean.

Was Lam asking pan-democrats to take that road? It's hard to tell, considering there had been two previous reform packages, and that technically each road "diverged" - pan-dems rejected the first reforms in 2005, which would have upped Election Committee membership from 800 to 1,600; enough of them endorsed the second, in 2010, but that just got us 1,200 Election Committee members instead.

Many felt regret that the first reforms were rejected; we ended up with something even less ideal the second time. And the pan-dems who endorsed the second package regretted it too, because it led to so much in-fighting that the rifts translated into an electoral setback for the Democracy Party.

If history is any guide, if the latest reforms are rejected, our next chance may not be until 2020, and we would probably be offered an even worse deal. And, if pan-dems endorse the package, they risk more internal rifts that could lead to electoral setbacks.

So I'm inclined to believe that Lam was referring to the book. Peck, in his best-known work, basically called for all to endure "legitimate" pain and suffering to grow. Lam may well be channelling Peck, asking pan-democrats to embrace "discipline" - to learn to delay gratification, sacrifice present comfort for future gain, accept responsibility for their actions and reconcile multiple, complex and conflicting factors in decision-making, especially when done on behalf of others. That would make better sense. Peck opened his book by writing "Life is difficult". Life for pan-democrats is difficult. But Peck's point was that there's no use crying about it. Without suffering, there's no chance for change. And, in that sense, the pan-democrats must know that their repeated walk-outs and indignation will not take us anywhere.

Interestingly, though, a more careful reading of Frost's poem has made many question whether he was talking about life's regrets at all. Frost's road less travelled is a satirical portrait, mocking the way that we often make choices appear much more dramatic than they really are. Frost actually wrote that the two paths were "really about the same". And if we were to consult his other works, we would see that he believed we only realise our destination when we arrive at it. So perhaps Lam has a better understanding of Frost than Chan did. This fork in the road isn't so dramatic after all.

Frost perhaps has something to offer us - since we'll have to endure months of political high-drama.

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