Hong Kong’s former Legco president Jasper Tsang on chief executive candidates, Article 23, and Superman
Loved and hated but largely respected, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing looks back at eight tumultuous years at the helm of Legco, but the DAB stalwart remains tight-lipped about the possibility of a chief executive run
Deemed the most intelligent politician of the local pro-establishment camp and respected by peers from across the political spectrum as impartial, consistent and empathetic, retired Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has moved away from frontline politics (for now) to take up a number of “odd jobs” that range from hosting a weekly radio talk show to teaching university students about the parliamentary system of government.
As the legislature remains paralysed by the ongoing oath-taking saga involving two incoming localist lawmakers who spoiled their swearing-in pledges, Tsang looks back on his involvement in some equally controversial political challenges during his eight-year stint as head of an increasingly unruly legislature. The 69 year old offers insights on two potential chief executive candidates, the city’s political stalemate, and why as a youngster he loved Superman.
After an interesting life in politics, what are you now devoting your time to now you have “retired”? I am spending more time with my think tank on public policy research. On top of that, I am hosting a radio show on Commercial Radio interviewing guests on a wide range of topical issues. I will also be teaching a new course on parliamentary practices and procedures at Chinese University from next January. I am all set to start a new chapter in my life.
How would you sum up your Legco years? My Legco tenure can be divided into two stages – first when I was a legislator in my role as a core member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and second when I became Legco president from 2008 until I retired in September.
As a legislator my role was to engage in debates. Naturally when you take part in heated debates you find yourself loved by one side and often hated by the other. So from time to time, particularly when I was walking the streets, I would get people coming up to me to show support, while others would bombard me with harsh words.
Once when I was travelling on the MTR, one well-dressed man shouted at me: “Tsang Yok-sing, shame on you!” I felt really embarrassed as there were a lot of people in the same carriage. He said nothing in particular as to why he was angry with me. Fortunately, this didn’t happen very often, but from time to time I did receive insulting remarks from members of the public. That all changed after I became Legco president in 2008. Gradually I got more and more friendly remarks and far fewer insults. On many occasions I met young mothers who asked me to pose for photos with their kids. I think that spoke volumes, showing how much they trusted me.
I think being Legco president gave me a very unfair advantage over my colleagues; my regular media exposure put me in an authoritative position as the person in a higher position to maintain order inside the chamber.
Also, due to my role I wasn’t supposed to take part in any debate, to maintain impartiality, and that allowed me to refrain from commenting on sensitive or contentious issues. This gave me a kind of protection.
In my last sitting as president, my parting words truly came from the bottom of my heart when I told members it was both an honour and a pleasure to be the president for eight years, allowing me to serve Hong Kong in such a unique capacity.
As president I had to issue a lot of rulings on bills and motions. It was like solving a mathematics problem, applying my knowledge to fit a practical situation in accordance with the rules of Legco.
It was a privilege to work with people who knew exactly what they were doing. In difficult times it was a challenge because I had to pull out all the stops to manage the situation by going into problem-solving mode to weigh up the pros and cons.
Some people say the behaviour of some Legco members has become increasingly unruly over the years. My critics have said I was too permissive and lenient because I was trying to curry favour with the opposition and didn’t want to offend them. That was not the case. I think it has more to do with the relationship between the legislature and the executive branch of government. When the opposition in the legislature feel their views are being neglected and they are being rendered helpless, then a minority will resort to extreme measures, hence all the filibustering that came about.
If the opposition legislators had thought this behaviour would not be acceptable to the voters, obviously they would have stopped. What happens in the legislature only reflects the reality in our society at large.
What were your most memorable moments in Legco, and could you share with us any happy or tearful ones? The first time I cut short filibustering was the day of my 65th birthday, on May 17, 2012. The council was dealing with a very contentious bill – the Legislative Council Amendment Bill – which said members who resigned in the middle of a term would not be able to stand in the resulting by-election. Because I allowed filibustering members to move a large number of amendments, my colleagues in the pro-establishment camp were very angry. In the small hours of May 17, having debated the bill for a long time, I decided to cut the filibuster, and I got lots of angry messages damning me.
But just a few hours before that the same people had organised a surprise birthday party for me. A few hours later the mood changed and a couple of messages on Facebook even said: “This is your last birthday”. It was an unforgettable moment for me.
There were also a few moments when I felt happy with myself. Before the Christmas break in 2012 there was a story circulating saying the world was going to end on December 21. We had our last meeting before the predicted Armageddon and as a concluding remark I said: “We are breaking for Christmas, but the council has a lot of business not finished yet, so I cannot allow tomorrow to be the end of the world.” Everybody had a good laugh and that was widely reported. It was good fun.
A few political figures have warned that if Legco remains as chaotic as it is, a couple of undesirable scenarios could result; Beijing introducing a national security law; or Leung Chun-ying serving a second term. What are your thoughts? First of all, legislating on Article 23 of the Basic Law is our constitutional obligation, but we have been procrastinating for nearly 20 years now and both governments have come to an understanding that there is no urgency in doing it. We have to do it, but at the same time it is quite obvious our problems have not been caused by the absence of this piece of legislation. I don’t think anyone believes that making this piece of law will solve all our problems.
I don’t think Leung Chun-ying’s status is relevant at all. Before the Legco elections some said that if the pro-government side did well, Leung would stay on, while others said he would remain if the pro-government side did poorly. It’s no secret I do not agree with some of the things he has been doing. I have told people I don’t belong to the ABC (Anyone But C.Y.) camp. I am not determined to remove Leung from his post, but I would like to see the chief executive election next year provide a chance for everyone, including Leung, to do some soul searching.
What are your thoughts on Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Woo Kwok-hing running for the top job? You earlier said you might consider running yourself if the candidates were not offering a “real choice”. Nothing is set in stone yet. It’s still too early for me to make a decision because the two still have to secure the support of 150 members of the Election Committee for them to be eligible as candidates. I am not in a hurry, and will wait and see.
Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Judge Woo is highly respected and has a strong background in law but lacks policy research and governance experience. Ip, on the other hand, has all-round experience as a former senior government official and an elected legislator. She has a lot of good qualities although her style of doing things may not always be acceptable to a lot of people.
What do you think about the latest Legco oath-taking chaos and the deepening political rifts in our already divided society? Most people say the divisions that have developed in the last few years need to be resolved. The majority don’t believe Hong Kong can become independent from China. Most of us want to see “one country, two systems” succeed. Of course, we see young people talking about Hong Kong breaking away from China, but a vast majority do understand that it is not an option. Most believe our future lies in the success of “one country, two systems”.
With political bickering constantly plaguing the legislature’s efficiency, what choices do we have? All Legco members are voted in by the people so it is up to the people of Hong Kong to tell the members very clearly that “we don’t want to see you fighting against each other all the time. We want to see Legco doing some good work for the people.”
Do you think public sentiment among Hongkongers is generally quite fickle? Voters in Hong Kong are not hugely different from those in other parts of the world. Some academics call this an era of post-truth politics in which we often see emotions prevail over reason. Even in practising democracy we have to learn from our own mistakes.
The next five to 10 years will be crucial. I believe it is quite apparent now that throughout the last 19 years in the implementation of “one country, two systems” we have seen problems and conflicts that we had not previously expected. It is obvious these conflicts are actually posing a threat to the success of “one country, two systems”. We must fix them.
It’s well known that “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung has been your long-time political rival. If you had to say one positive thing about him, what would that be? He is a very considerate man. When we were still in the old Legco building, which was less spacious than our current location, very often when his followers came to protest he would make sure they wouldn’t barge into the building and inadvertently harm the security staff on duty.
Time magazine called you “Hong Kong’s hope”, saying you were the one to heal the rift between the city and Beijing. What do you think about that? If the public, the opposition and Beijing continue to fight each other, how can we expect “one country, two systems” to succeed. It takes effort from both sides to rebuild bridges. I am embarrassed to be called “Hong Kong’s hope”. Hong Kong cannot rely on just one person, we need all of us to work together to reach mutual trust.
THE LESSER-KNOWN JASPER
Childhood: ● When I was a child I wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up, but as I got older I wanted to be a scientist or mathematician.
● My first crush was a female voice artist who played the voice of a detective in a radio drama.
● My first heroes were William Tell and Robin Hood.
● I believed in ghosts.
● As a child I was shy, introverted and sometimes rebellious.
● I made a speech in class when in Primary Three (six years old). Another one was when I played a part in a radio drama for the first time when I was eight or nine years old.
Outlook on life:
● A good friend is honest with you, but doesn’t mind your faults and weaknesses.
● A good person is honest, generous and pleasant.
● Some of my good friends are probably not good people. Why? I don’t know. We just like each other despite each other’s weaknesses.
● Some people are too good to be friends with; you can’t stand their goodness!
● I can’t tell whether a political enemy can be a good friend or not, plus I have no political enemies.
Some quirky things:
Do you have a favourite cartoon character or super hero?
Superman, but only as played by the late Christopher Reeve. He was very handsome.
Do you daydream sometimes? Do you think it’s a good or bad thing?
I daydreamed a lot when I was young. Unfortunately, I lost the ability to daydream some years ago.
If you were to create a cool word to describe Hong Kong, what would it be? Explain your new vocabulary.
Give me some time to think about it.
If you were to assign a colour to represent Hong Kong, what would that be and why?
Grey-ish white – the colour of the sky most of the time.
If you were granted a wish, what would it be?
Having no more questions to answer!