Comparisons are odious. Sometimes justifiably. Compare the present law and order situations, for instance, in Hong Kong and Macau. Now, here is a comparison which is truly odious, to the shame of the police and civil administration of the Portuguese enclave. The violent warring gangster factions which now rule the ancient cobblestoned streets - seemingly above the forces of law and order and justice - are a warning to Hong Kong. As we race towards reunification with China, internal safety and stability is a constant worry for many in Hong Kong. What is happening in Macau is our bad dream come to shocking life. Frustrated and impotent, themselves the target of brazen attacks by thugs, the various police forces in Macau seem more like spectators at a tragedy rather than active combatants in a war on crime. The gangsters have stolen the initiative. Police must seize it back. There is no doubt the hail of bullets in the streets and the screeching tyres of getaway cars is a sombre chorus that has cut tourism. Macau's tourist authorities, never the most prolific nor effective font of information, fall as silent as the worn stones of St Paul's cathedral when asked how the underworld civil war affects tourism. Hotel operators and restaurant owners are vocal, usually on condition that they are not identified. This is wise; one of the first victims was the general manager of the Macau Holiday Inn, Gerhard Kropp. He fought to keep prostitutes and their pimps out of his lobby. The result was a vicious ambush at his home 16 months ago when three criminals armed with knives and choppers hacked him. He almost lost several fingers. Mr Kropp later left Macau for a new posting. The province's hapless police force have made no arrests in this case. Nor have they in most of the other murders, gang clashes and revenge attacks. So bad is the situation across the Pearl River estuary that even Stanley Ho, the king of the casinos, has publicly ridiculed Macau police and compared their lacklustre performance unfavourably with their Hong Kong counterparts. Authorities in Zhuhai have clamped down on the border to try to stop mainland recruits from joining the well-paid gangster levies and Beijing has bluntly warned Macau to solve the problem. There is a potent and ominous caution here for Hong Kong. The basis for our future rests not only on political assurances and promises of the administration-to-be, but also on a guarantee of safe streets, internal security, communal stability and effective law and order. For three decades, we have been blessed with these, thanks largely to our police but also because of the public backing given to the force. The stability and prosperity we have been so long promised simply cannot flourish in a climate of lawlessness. Will the multi-nationals on whom prosperity depends keep their corporate homes in Hong Kong if it comes to resemble Tombstone? I doubt it. Our underworld situation is not fuelled by the tidal waves of money created by gambling, as in Macau; the Jockey Club's control of gaming is near-total and effective action is taken to keep betting on horses out of the hands of hoodlums. But we should not be complacent. Under the surface of peaceable Hong Kong, gangs, secret societies and triad organisations lurk. They are ready to grab any opportunity presented by a breakdown in law and order. Witness the instant outbreak of looting in Mongkok when Tiananmen tensions spilled over to Hong Kong in 1989, loutish opportunism which was nipped before it could blossom by the iron fist of the Blue Berets. Macau is not so fortunate. Despite all official claims to the contrary, tourism has been hard hit. The general manager of the Macau Holiday Inn, William Hon, estimates that his arrivals from Hong Kong are down between 40 per cent and 50 per cent. Even the most fanatical gambler heading for the fan tan tables is going to carefully weigh up the odds on getting shot in the head in the crossfire. Johnson Chan, the president of the Macau Hotels Association and general manager of the Hotel Lisboa, says tourist arrivals overall have edged up by 1.56 per cent in the first quarter of the year, buoyed by visitors from Taiwan and China where the media has not covered the gang wars in such depth. But those hungry, big-betting Hong Kongers, the bread and butter of Macau's tourist industry are staying away; food and beverage sales in hotels, for instance, are down 20 per cent. The owner of one small, successful restaurant - 'Please do not name me,' she begged - insists that normal people are not affected, that it is only the gang members and police officials who are being shot. This is a claim often repeated. It is not much reassurance to someone caught in the middle of a gun-blazing street battle. The appalling violence of recent months, which has left at least 14 dead this year, has hit not only the tourist dollar, but also public faith in Macau as a viable society. We need no such doubts about Hong Kong. We have to preserve every bit of confidence we can find. If uncontrolled thug warfare raged through the streets of Hong Kong, as it does in Macau, the world could justifiably query our viability as a near-autonomous society. Thank heavens that the underworld war has not so far erupted on our side of the estuary. Let us hope it never does.