Albert Cheng King-hon is a thorn in the side of the political establishment - and likes it that way. Coming back from a two-month sabbatical in August, he immediately criticised as many government officials as he could.
He singled out Hong Kong Football Association president Timothy Fok Tsun-ting for paying Real Madrid too much to play an exhibition match in Hong Kong. He said housing officials were not doing enough to support the property market and called on Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and all his ministers to resign. 'I don't want the public to think I have lost my spark,' Cheng said at the time.
He admits to being impolite and none-too-respectful at times, but that seems to add to his popularity. This reputation for outspokenness has given Cheng the means to summon top officials to answer questions on his show and compels ordinary people to call in to express themselves. This notoriety, however, has also endangered his safety and left him open to criticism. Regrettably, the latter seems to be among the reasons Cheng has chosen once again to take a long break from broadcasting.
The decision comes at a time when several high-profile broadcasters are coming under pressure for expressing their views, and soon after harbour activist Winston Chu Ka-sun revealed threats to his family's safety linked to his opposition to reclamation plans. Cheng, who also writes a column for this paper, has received threats against his life in recent months, while fellow radio host Wong Yuk-man has been the victim of physical assault. The atmosphere of intolerance betrayed by such news is sad, especially in a city where freedom of speech is considered a fundamental right.
Cheng's Commercial Radio show, Teacup in a Storm, will still be aired as usual, with Allen Lee Peng-fei filling in. It can only be hoped that the show remains what it has always been, a public forum that allows frank discussion on the issues of the day. Making sure it continues to serve this purpose would be one way to allay Cheng's fears about gradually diminishing space for debate in the city.
It should be noted that Cheng's leave from June to August last year happened during two of the most eventful months in the city's political scene. When he had an issue he wanted to discuss during this period, Cheng had to appear as a guest on his own programme.
It could be argued that in the months ahead, as Hong Kong discusses the details of political reform and prepares for hotly contested Legislative Council elections in the autumn, the public needs a gadfly like him as much now as it ever did. Perhaps if developments are sufficiently interesting in the coming months, Cheng will cut short his leave and return to the air ahead of schedule. His concerns about political pressures are not to be discounted, but the way to counter them is through more open debate, not less.