Be careful when you demand an apology, for your turn will come. The Hong Kong government has been relentless in trying to extract a top-level apology from the Philippine government for its criminal incompetence over the 2010 Manila bus siege. Yet, it has apparently not given even a momentary thought to saying sorry to the Indonesians for mistreating their compatriots who have come to the city to work as domestic helpers.
This can only be attributed to a colossal failure of moral sense.
When 23-year-old Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih returned to her home province of Central Java from Hong Kong last month with cuts and burns all over her body, did the Hong Kong government have blood on its hands? The New York Times seems to thinks so.
In an article published on February 14, titled "Hong Kong's indentured servants", the newspaper accused the Hong Kong government of enforcing "discriminatory" laws that govern the living and working conditions of foreign domestic helpers and foster an environment leading to abuse.
The article stopped short of saying Hong Kong authorities were as much responsible as the Indonesian government and recruitment agencies for forcing maids into a form of indentured servitude, by "creating conditions that keep Indonesian women tied to their debts, while limiting their movements and underpaying them".
An apology to the Indonesians seems to be in order. But our government seems so busy and intent on demanding apologies from others it has no time to reflect on its own sins. One is driven to the point of murmuring about stones and glasshouses.
Demanding an apology is often a futile exercise because apologies have no value unless they are heartfelt. Backing up the demand with retaliatory measures is even more ridiculous, for if an apology is obtained by coercion, how can it be a sincere expression of remorse?
It is an affront to human decency and public morality when the victimiser shows no remorse for what he has done to the victims, as when the nationalist lawmakers in Japan attempt to discredit the apology for forced prostitution, issued in 1993, by citing the lack of official wartime documents. But I'm also troubled - and offended - by the effortlessness with which apologies roll off the tongues of people with power and responsibility, as if they were humming their favourite tunes.
The effortlessness, though, may be deceptive. In the age of apology, the art of saying "I am sorry" has become a carefully choreographed dance arranged by spin doctors, media consultants and crisis management experts.
Andrew Ross Sorkin is a New York Times columnist who started "Apology Watch" on Twitter to track new apologies and follow up on the actions taken by companies, organisations and individuals post-apology. He believes that unless a leader means it and does something about it, he'd better not apologise at all. That makes sense. We want an apology from Philippine President Benigno Aquino only if it is given in good faith. Trying to make him do so under duress, even if it turns out to be successful, would only make us a bully and a hypocrite.
Perry Lam is a local cultural clinic