If Hong Kong can be likened to a pressure cooker, then 2006 can be seen as a year in which this highly stressed society saw tension boiling over on several fronts. It was also a year in which this city's image as a highly efficient metropolis and a rights-conscious community came under serious challenge. The early half of the year, in particular, saw the city limping from one row to another. In January, thousands of teachers took to the street to vent their frustrations over heavy work pressure. The festive mood of Lunar New Year in February was marred by chaos at Disneyland, which closed its gates after it was inundated with tourists holding pre-paid tickets. March saw the Kowloon-Canton Railway hit by a 'mutiny' against its chairman, a public mortuary mix up two bodies, the police watchdog embroiled in an embarrassing data leak, and a policeman kill a fellow officer and injure another in a shoot-out in which he also died. All this happened as the government fought an uphill battle to win public blessing for two projects - the West Kowloon cultural district and a new government headquarters at the Tamar site. Eventually, the first had to be shelved, while the second was pushed through amid bitter acrimony. Peace prevails As the year came to a close, one heartening development was that the tense social mood that pervaded the early months had given way to a more relaxed atmosphere. That was primarily the result of an improving economy. But measures to reduce stress and plug loopholes in our rights protection regime also played a role. In a sense, several incidents that captivated the community this year could be attributed to feelings by those concerned that their personal hardships were not being properly appreciated - by the government, their superiors or fellow citizens. The teachers who staged a rare public demonstration felt that officials had failed to understand the heavy pressure they were under. What galvanised their grievances were the deaths by suicide of two teachers in a week. In trying to refute a suggestion that the deaths were caused by the pressure of education reforms, Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun asked the sensible, but seemingly heartless, question as to why there had not been more deaths if work pressure had really been to blame. The row had to be defused through a costly plan to boost administrative support for teachers and the setting up of a panel to recommend further measures to reduce their workload. On a smaller scale, a similar feeling that hard work was going unappreciated prompted senior staff at the Kowloon-Canton Railway to rail against chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun. Although his role was supposed to be non-executive, Mr Tien was perceived as being too hands-on. His management style was different to managing director Samuel Lai Man-hay, who had the support of most section heads. The conflict between them eventually came to a head over how the discovery of small cracks in some carriages should be handled. The staff's open call for Mr Tien to step down was quickly shot down by the government. Mr Lai had to go, while the staff was disciplined. Bus Uncle The amount of rage bottled up inside many Hong Kong people was illustrated by the notorious 'Bus Uncle' incident. A video clip of a middle-aged man berating a young man, who had asked him to tone down his voice while speaking on his mobile phone, was the surprise hit of the year. The most widely cited line of 'Bus Uncle' - 'You have pressure; I have pressure' - struck a responsive chord in Hong Kong. Among comparable societies with a similar level of social and economic development, this city is one of the few to have failed to adopt a five-day working week. With teachers among a small proportion of Hong Kong's workforce that does not have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, it was ironic that the teachers' protest provided the backdrop for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's announcement that the government would take the lead to promote a better work-life balance by adopting a five-day week. The move has since prompted banks and an increasing number of companies to follow suit, although the majority of workers still toil six days a week. Still, the five-day week move may in time be seen as one of the most far-reaching decisions that Mr Tsang has made for Hong Kong. A source of the pressure that many people face at work in Hong Kong is the high standard we have come to expect from service providers. In this fast-moving city, long queues and slow workers are not acceptable or tolerated. So it was a great shame that Disneyland, the premier joint venture tourism facility that the government spent billions to build, tarnished our fame as a mecca of efficiency. A failure to understand the holiday culture in this part of the world prompted the theme park to adopt a ticketing system that lured far too many mainland visitors to patronise the park on certain days. Scenes of crying children in front of the closed gates of a facility supposed to be synonymous with laughter and fun were among the most damning images of Hong Kong that flashed around the world. The teething problems of Ngong Ping 360 - the cable car that takes tourists on a 25-minute scenic journey up the mountains on Lantau Island - were similarly disappointing. A test run involving thousands of passengers saw cars dangling in mid-air for hours. Temporary suspensions turned into hour-long delays. Shoddy standards Two of the most outrageous cases of shoddy standards occurred at the Fu Shan Public Mortuary, where staff mixed up the identities of two bodies, and the Independent Police Complaints Council, where a contractor accidentally posted the personal particulars of complainants on the internet. The general feeling was that Hong Kong would cease to be a city that stands for efficiency and high standards if we allowed poor service to become the norm. Moreover, where standards are allowed to slip in certain areas, they can even cause a whittling away of our rights. The data leak at the IPCC was a good example of a careless mistake causing grave privacy violations. Fortunately, there were no signs of the public losing their vigilance in guarding their rights - a trait that sets Hong Kong apart from most of the region. During the year, legislators fought hard to ensure a law governing covert surveillance operations would contain proper safeguards against abuse. While the final legislation is not perfect, it represents a giant step forward in preventing the public from being victimised by unwarranted intrusions into their privacy. That vigilance also extended to an expectation of a high level of integrity from public figures. Rural leader Daniel Heung Cheuk-ki was forced to resign as chairman of the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education after he was found to have turned a warehouse into his home in breach of the property's lease conditions. Meanwhile, the rights of our ethnic minorities are set to be given a boost after the government finally tabled a bill to outlaw racial discrimination after a 10-year consultation. To be sure, trying to get a consensus on what constitutes a right that warrants legal protection is difficult. For example, while all agree that every worker should get decent pay, people differ over whether that should be achieved by setting a minimum wage and capping working hours. The debate continued after the government introduced a voluntary wage protection movement for cleaners and security guards. A taxing problem While 2006 was primarily defined by quarrels over pressure, standards and rights, two issues that did not fit these categories also received intense attention - the consultation on introducing a goods and services tax and the funding of kindergartens through a voucher scheme from 2007. The GST was the government's solution to what it deemed to be a major problem - Hong Kong's narrow tax base. Apart from eliciting populist opposition against a new tax, the consultation prompted a critical scrutiny of our tax regime. Critics managed to crush the intellectual arguments for the new tax, forcing the government to shelve the consultation before it is due to end early next year. The voucher scheme was generally welcomed. But the government's decision to exclude profit-making kindergartens from the scheme raised questions about fairness and the role of public funding in a sector of the education system that has been entirely driven by market forces. As the year drew to a close, the reverberation of passionate debate about these and other issues are still being felt. They testify to Hong Kong's vibrancy as a city in which the right to free speech is vigorously observed and practised. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why, despite our murky waters and smoggy skies, scores of entrepreneurs and talented people have chosen to settle down in Hong Kong.