Macau protests that halted pension plan seen as political awakening

Protests that led to scrapping of a plan to reward outgoing officials could be a watershed moment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 11:43am

The strong May sunlight almost hurt. Despite the heat, 20,000 sweaty Macau residents chanted slogans on the cobblestone streets of the former Portuguese colony.

In a city dominated by the sound of clicking dice and roulette wheels, they raised their voices to condemn a bill that would have lavished benefits on outgoing chief executives and certain other government officials. The May 25 protest was described as the biggest demonstration in the city since residents rose up in 1989 to oppose the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Thousands gathered two days afterwards, outside the Legislative Assembly, calling for the resignation of Chief Executive Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on if the government didn't scrap the plan. Shortly afterwards the administration withdrew the contentious bill.

While members of the public slammed the government for not carrying out any consultation on the bill before tabling it to the legislature, Chui vowed to learn from the experience and said the administration would do better to explain its policies and hear from the public.

The administration would draft a new paper on retirement benefits for public consultation, he added.

The protests have been called by some lawmakers and activists the political awakening of Macau residents - a maiden experience for many in the crowd. Some of the participants said they hoped their efforts would inspire the city to fight for a more ambitious and important goal - democracy.

Professor Eilo Yu Wing-yat, a political scientist at Macau University, says it's uncertain whether public momentum on social issues can be sustained. "The crux of this campaign is that Macau people, who used to believe they have no power to say no to government, finally realise that they can make a change if they stay united. This is very powerful," he says.

Hongkongers have been more vigorous in monitoring the government, says Ada Pun, who joined the rally on May 27 before heading to work at a casino. "Macau government has long believed that its citizens would accept everything they propose, given that they already accept the Article 23 legislation," Pun says, referring to an anti-subversion law passed in 2009 that met with little citizen protest. Conversely, the Hong Kong government shelved a similar bill in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets to oppose what they termed a threat to the city's freedom and rights.

"That's why we have to stand up," Pun says. "If we remain silent, they would take further steps against us."

Since 2008, the Macau government has doled out numerous cash handouts to all citizens - ranging from 3,000 to 9,000 patacas. Despite this, some residents said they could not help feeling frustrated at skyrocketing property prices and the huge numbers of tourists pouring into the city.

"Property prices right now are sky high. Even an old apartment in a shabby building costs over 3 million patacas. How can people afford that?" says Pun.

The average price of a flat in Macau has shot up - from 1,590 patacas per square foot in the first quarter of 2009 to 8,267 patacas in the first quarter of this year, according to Macau's Statistics and Census Service. Flats in Coloane - the city's southern tier - cost more than 10,000 patacas per square foot.

Last year, more than 29 million visits - 66 per cent from the mainland - were made to the casino city, which has a population of slightly more than half a million people.

The rising property prices and the crowds pushed were too much for many residents. The public's frustrations went over the edge last month when they finally learned the details of the exit package bill, which was tabled by the administration to the legislature in December.

"Everything is so expensive now, and the influx of mainland tourists has definitely affected our lives," says Pun. "But the government has done nothing to improve the livelihood of its people, despite receiving billions of tax revenue from the gambling boom. Where was the money spent?"

Macau's chief executive earns about 270,000 patacas a month with other top officials getting 187,000 patacas, while the median monthly pay of a Macau resident is 13,000 patacas, according to the government's data.

The scrapped bill proposed offering former chief executives a monthly subsidy - 70 per cent of their monthly salary - until they started new jobs.

The policy would have been retroactive, meaning former chief Edmund Ho Hau-wah, who had left the office after completing two five-year terms in 2009, might have benefited from the bill. It also granted a serving chief executive immunity from criminal charges.

Meanwhile, retiring principal officials would also have received a one-off payment, ranging from 14 per cent to 30 per cent of their monthly salary for each month served. An additional monthly payment - 70 percent of their monthly salaries - was also proposed for the outgoing officials, as they were banned from assuming posts with private entities for the first year after leaving office.

Lawmaker Au Kam-san, of the city's New Macau Association, says it would have been impossible for the legislators to veto the bill, even though it didn't have public support. The legislature is dominated by indirectly elected or appointed lawmakers who are likely to back the government.

"And that's why we need the support from the ordinary citizens," Au says, adding that the association had set up booths to notify the public about the bill.

Protesters not only blamed the government - which did not offer a public consultation for the controversial bill - but also the local media, for not informing the public. "I would not have to stand up if the Macau media had done their job," said Simon Cheong, who took a day off from his job at a pawnshop to protest.

"No one has ever told the public what's going on [with the bill]. It was two to three days before the protest that I finally knew the bill's evil nature," he said.

Ava Chan Lai-cheng, who used to work for the city's public television broadcaster TDM, said she was trying to better inform the public through a new online media platform - All About Macau - where she works now.

It has provided updated news about the two rallies on its Facebook page - including the organisers' speeches, interviewees' opinions and the rallies' turnout count. The updates were swifter than those that appeared on mainstream media.

"Mainstream media has a credibility crisis," she says. "We do not aim to replace them. … We just want to raise people's civil awareness and let them realise Macau is not as good and as peaceful as they perceive."

Chan, who is a former committee member of the Macau Journalists Association, says the city's civil movement is still searching for its way, but at least the rallies have brought her hope.

"It has sent a warning signal to the government: don't go too far. Macau people will roar if you step on their bottom line," she says.

The annual Labour Day rally on May 1 used to be the most prominent political protest in Macau. Hundreds of residents would take to the streets to fight for democracy and livelihood issues.

But none of those protests could touch the intensity or size of the rallies against the proposed benefits package.

"I am very excited and touched. I have been waiting for these changes for years," says veteran democratic lawmaker Au. "This is the very first protest - on public interest - which drew a massive participation of young people.

"We have long exhausted ways to prompt citizens to realise the importance of their power … and now our civil society is really starting to flourish."

The rallies, he says, could be a turning point for his fellow Macau residents to realise the problems present in the current political system.

Unlike the Hong Kong Basic Law, Macau's mini-constitution neither specifies universal suffrage as the ultimate goal of its political system, nor does the government have any timetable to implement "one man, one vote" for its chief executive and legislative elections.

Protest leader Sulu Sou Ka-hou, a 22-year-old activist with the pro-democracy group Macau Conscience, says the protests were the turning point for the city's political movement and vows to sustain the momentum to fight for democracy.

He is planning a series of protests to target Chui, given the incumbent is expected to bid for a second five-year term in August.

"This is the perfect timing to push for a fresh round of a democracy movement," Sou says.

Macau residents, he says, did not oppose the previous chief executive election when Ho was elected.

He predicts that the chief executive will have a harder time during the next voting period.

Sou says the fates of Macau and Hong Kong are intertwined. Macau's "small victory" could boost Hong Kong's democracy battles, he says.

"The high turnout of our rallies has sent a message to Beijing that a flourishing economy - which Macau is enjoying - might not necessarily bring political stability as they wish," he says.

"We have proven that this fairy tale is wrong. The society will not work no matter how many cash handouts the government gives if the political system is undeveloped."