Swallowing their pride: How Hong Kong officials missed an opportunity to show some humility in lead-in-water scare

Gary Cheung says the Hong Kong government shouldn't have been so quick to ban officials from drinking the water at estates hit by the lead scare

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 3:37pm

The days following the opening of Hong Kong International Airport in July 1998 saw flight delays, passengers waiting hours for their baggage and the shutting down of operations of air-freight handler Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals.

In early 1999, a report compiled by a commission of inquiry did not blame any officials. Another report released by a Legislative Council select committee held Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the chief secretary at the time, and three key airport officials responsible for the fiasco.

After the release of the two reports, a senior official told me that Hongkongers should not be too harsh with those officials named in the Legco inquiry as "they had done their best".

My memories of what the official said were rekindled recently when Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor defended "diligent civil servants" amid criticism of district councillors pressuring officials into drinking water from public housing estates where excessive levels of lead had been found.

Speaking in Legco during a debate two weeks ago on two motions to launch an inquiry into the contaminated water scandal, Lam said at least two officials had been pressured by district councillors into drinking allegedly tainted water.

Lam, who admitted inadequacies in the system of monitoring the quality of drinking water, said she had ordered officials not to be pressured into drinking the water, to safeguard the government's dignity. Lawmakers eventually rejected the motions.

I have several family members who are retired and serving civil servants. I have no lack of respect for the professionalism and diligence of civil servants. And, there is no denying that some politicians have spared no effort to make political capital from the contaminated water saga.

But that doesn't mean we should easily dismiss the worries of the public housing tenants who have had to use buckets to collect drinking water after excessive levels of lead were found in tap water in their neighbourhoods.

I can't see what harm would be done if they did drink water before cameras to show their empathy with affected residents, as long as they did not do it under duress

History is littered with examples of officials eating food or drinking water from troubled areas to boost public confidence and show concern for the people.

In April 1997, Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui ate a pork knuckle before cameras to reassure his people who were plagued by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that was devastating pig herds on the island. In October 2013, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a fishing port in Fukushima, which was hard hit by the nuclear crisis in 2011, and ate locally caught seafood to demonstrate its safety.

Even some mainland officials will put themselves in the shoes of the people they govern. In July, Guangzhou mayor Chen Jianhua swam in the Pearl River to show that the water quality of the once heavily polluted river has significantly improved.

You may argue these men did so as public relations stunts and these incidents are different from Hong Kong officials being forced into drinking possibly contaminated water. But I can't see what harm would be done if they did drink water before cameras to show their empathy with affected residents, as long as they did not do it under duress.

Undersecretary for Transport and Housing Yau Shing-mu and assistant Observatory director Sharon Lau Sum-yee were the two senior officials who drank from cups offered by district councillors in July. Yau, who grew up in a public housing estate, may know more about politics than Lam.

As the chief secretary claimed credit for having the "guts" to risk being criticised for seeking justice for civil servants, a chance for officials to show humility was squandered.

Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor