War over words speaks volumes about 'world city'
If Ambrose Lam was trying to dodge trouble by refusing to use English, it backfired
Two recent events, although unrelated, have thrown the spotlight on one particularly thorny issue: the use of English in Hong Kong.
Language is one factor Hong Kong uses to back up its claim to be Asia's "world city". With English and Chinese as its official languages - symbolic of the "one country, two systems" set-up - all government documents are bilingual.
But when it comes to non-government agencies, the use of English is optional. That is, until a war over their words breaks out in the media.
The issue came to a head at a recent Law Society press conference about its political reform proposal for 2017, when its president, Ambrose Lam San-keung, refused to answer a reporter's questions in English.
An ATV reporter, of Chinese ethnicity, explained that he needed a sound bite in English. But Lam dug his heels in, saying he had already clearly explained his views in Cantonese. He suggested the reporter translate his response.
Apparently dismayed by Lam's uncooperative behaviour, ATV World decided to teach him a lesson, airing a special report in its prime-time news bulletin that night, in which the anchor began: "The Law Society unveiled its proposals for democratic reform today, but we won't be reporting it because of the attitude on display during the press conference."
Another anchor continued: "Instead, we want to make a point here, and show you how increasingly difficult it is these days for English newsgathering in Hong Kong, our so-called world city."
It was hugely embarrassing for Lam, and for the Law Society. Perhaps Lam lacks confidence in his English skills. Or maybe he was worried about getting across the nuances of the comments he had made in Cantonese.
The reporter had asked him to explain the society's attitude to Beijing's requirement that candidates for chief executive be "patriotic". "I already explained it in Cantonese, sorry about that," Lam replied.
Either way, it seems Lam wanted to avoid trouble. And it backfired.
Being able to express oneself properly does matter when it comes to sensitive issues. But as for whether Hong Kong should be seen as a world city, language is not the only factor.
Another major boast, and the subject of the second recent event, is the fact that the city manages to lure top talent from overseas to take up key positions - whether it's the vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, the head of the MTR Corporation or the West Kowloon Cultural Authority chief, to name just a few.
Aside from their professional credentials, sometimes these non-Chinese hired for key public posts are understood to be vetted to ensure they do not have any local political affiliation or vested interests so that they do not become an easy target of criticism.
But there is another advantage of hiring high-flyers from overseas: if they don't speak the local lingo, they are less likely to get caught in the crossfire should they come under the scrutiny of lawmakers; or, at least, there is a language buffer. That's the theory, anyway. In reality, as the departing MTR Corp chief Jay Walder found out recently, it's not easy to get lost in translation. The American did not get off lightly when lawmakers grilled him over the delay to the HK$67 billion high-speed rail link to Guangzhou. In fact, without any connections in Legco, he may have been given a harder time.
It doesn't really matter why Walder chose to leave the job when his contract ends next year - whether it was for family reasons, as he said, or whether his contract wasn't renewed. The fact is, the MTR has a vacancy to fill, and the global headhunting begins again.
It won't be an easy task. Any potential candidates, whether they're Hongkongers or from overseas, will need to be aware of the complex political atmosphere they would step into. But whether they have political connections or not, or if they speak Cantonese, Putonghua, English or all three, the main consideration should be their professional skills and credentials. And having a thick skin to get by in this "world city" wouldn't hurt.