For Hong Kong officials, 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word

Peter Kammerer says if laws covering legal liability take effect, government will have much to apologise for, starting with the state of our housing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 1:32pm

In a previous job, I once screwed up big time. I had given my editor what I thought was the iconic photograph of a tragedy. All the news wire stories spoke of this picture, a black baby being pulled from the rubble of a bombing. I was not aware that there was a glitch with the newsroom's photo equipment and an image that was decidedly better than the one I passed on had not been received.

The technical fault was discovered the following day when my boss was storming around the office, trying to find out why his newspaper appeared to be the only one in the world with the wrong picture on the front page. It was the fault of the equipment, but as I had been monitoring the photos, I was ultimately to blame. When asked to explain, all I could do was be sincere and honest: "I'm sorry. I screwed up." My editor just shook his head, turned and walked away.

It's simple enough to do, but something our government has been all but incapable of. Think of the Lamma ferry tragedy in 2012, when the official in charge of marine safety took eight months to apologise, concern about the legal implications apparently being more important. It's a far cry from the response of other governments when disaster strikes, with top officials not only saying sorry, but also often resigning. Among them have been Taiwan's health minister, who quit in April over the gutter oil scandal, and the past two South Korean prime ministers, one who left after his name was found on a list tucked in the pocket of a tycoon suspected of corruption who killed himself, and the other over the sinking of the Sewol ferry.

At the heart of the Hong Kong reticence is a worry that an apology will mean legal liability

At the heart of the Hong Kong reticence is a worry that an apology will mean legal liability. It's the reason the government launched the six-week public consultation process now under way to fine-tune a proposed so-called sorry law. Under the legislation, a court is not allowed to admit an apology as evidence even if it includes an admission of fault or liability. The government and private parties would be covered. It is hoped that through an apology, disputes could be amicably settled. Mishaps involving doctors have long been a particular matter of concern.

But should the law take effect, there are a slew of issues that deserve an instant apology. Police went no further than expressing regret in May after wrongfully accusing an autistic 30-year-old man of manslaughter. Immigration officials have never taken proper responsibility for the bungling of the case of missing mentally handicapped boy Yu Man-hon, who they refused entry to 15 years ago after he was handed over by Shenzhen counterparts. Then there's air pollution, the massive cost overruns of the high-speed rail line to Guangzhou, the excruciating delays to the West Kowloon arts district, the lack of a determined recycling policy, and the list goes on.

But the issue the government should give a priority apology to is the appalling state of our housing. Many of us live in tiny flats that people in other developed societies would be well justified in calling slums. Shared kitchens and bathrooms, maid's quarters small enough to be cupboards, bedrooms that barely can fit a bed ... I've seen them all during my own searches over the years for a place to live. There have been flats so subdivided that the access corridor has to be walked down sideways. Rents have become so high that families are spending up to 70 per cent of their income just to put a roof over their heads. So dreadful are conditions that the finale of the last season of the US TV show Game of Thrones comes to mind: apart from an apology, housing officials should walk naked through city streets, with a bell-ringer behind and all around chanting "shame", as muck is thrown lavishly at them.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post