Carrie Lam should know arrogance is no virtue, especially in someone aspiring to be Hong Kong’s leader

Alice Wu commends the chief executive aspirant for her toughness as an official, but says her tendency to dismiss public concerns out of hand alienates Hongkongers, fanning populist discontent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 6:39pm

We have to thank Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for stirring the dead pond which was the chief executive election race. For months, we’ve been sitting on next to nothing, save some riddles and a line borrowed from Shakespeare, so we should be glad that Lam has finished reconsidering.

Lam managed to wrap up her government work – throwing in a new controversy for good measure – and kick-start her campaign all in one go, so we know multi-tasking is one of her strengths. It will come in handy; juggling the Beijing bosses and the ones in Hong Kong is no small feat.

Hong Kong’s ice cool Iron Lady with a will of steel

And with our growing list of problems, it takes a lot of courage to want the top job. This iron lady has got courage, for sure. Defending the government’s response after excessive levels of lead were found in tap water in several housing estates, Lam said she could be as bold as she wanted as “a government official with no expectation is always courageous”. The only problem, as can be seen from her handling of that scandal, is her other quality, one less flattering: arrogance.

To be clear, boldness can be an asset. Activist-turned-lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick made a name for himself when he took on the Heung Yee Kuk in his efforts to expose land corruption in the New Territories. It must be said that Lam took on the kuk boys over the issue of illegal structures, back in 2012 when she was serving under chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as his secretary for development.

But boldness alone isn’t enough. The boldness of Donald Trump got him elected as America’s 45th president, but being bold and arrogant is also dangerous. That’s when one starts treating others like idiots.

Watch: Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globe

Trump’s war of words with actress Meryl Streep is a case in point. In her speech at the Golden Globes awards, Streep took issue with Trump’s mocking of a person with a disability. Trump is so bold that he actually tried to rewrite history, claiming he had never mocked him for his disability. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what political gaslighting looks like. But, no, those of us who have seen footage of Trump mocking reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis, know we haven’t lost our sanity. Boldness and the inability to “own it”, put together, is not pretty.

Watch: Trump mocks reporter with disability

Lam may be bold at doing her job, but her arrogance has become increasingly apparent. She refused to apologise for the lead-in-water scandal, saying no official should be personally held responsible. And her handling of the Hong Kong Palace Museum controversy has been disastrous. The project was criticised for not holding a public consultation, but she saw no problem with it. Her displeasure over the lack of gratitude displayed by the little people for what she has bestowed upon them could not be more obvious.

Lam’s disdain at being challenged will only get in her way

Saying no official should be held responsible for the lead-in-water scandal was not “courageous”, but outrageous, especially to the people who had been drinking tainted water. To say that people were being critical of the Palace Museum project because of her speculated run for office was condescending, at best. There are merits in public criticism, even if it was, in part, politically motivated.

Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential race because she was deemed too elitist, too unrelatable. Lam should take heed. Her disdain at being challenged will only get in her way. Displays of “better than thou” snobbery will make her job harder. It will fuel the populism that the next chief executive needs to be able to douse. The iron lady must find ways of connecting with the people, instead of alienating them.

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