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Hong Kong economy

Business may be tough but there are times to show your humanity

Occasionally we should turn our game face aside and show our weakness and compassion

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 February, 2018, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 2018, 2:46pm

The act of showing sympathy is fraught with danger. The danger of creating offence. The danger of causing further upset. The hand wringing worry of just doing the wrong thing. Often the solution is just to do … nothing.

Bus accidents, such as that in Tai Po, are thankfully rare in Hong Kong, considering that millions of passenger miles are travelled each year along narrow, crowded mountainous roads, high bridges and long tunnels. Our buses are large and quite new, and can carry about 100 people.

Any incident, therefore, is going to impact a lot of humanity.

My brother died in a light aircraft accident. It was a true accident. The weather was perfect. The pilots (including himself) were well trained and experienced. The accident was avoidable, even preventable, but it still happened. That is the very definition of an accident.

It is easy to apportion blame completely on one person, or company, or system, or factor. It makes everyone else sleep better at night. Yet, most accidents, especially severe ones, are not due to one specific factor but are a result of a combination that creates the perfect storm. It already looks like several factors were involved in this case, so we should not be so hasty to apportion blame.

Equally, we should not be too hasty to bring in draconian measures that will restrict public transport without much reducing the casualty rate.

At the end of the day, callously, transport is a numbers game and the only way to have zero casualties is to stay at home.

That does not mean we do not feel heartfelt sympathy. The government has placed its considerable resources towards the victims of the accident. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor visited the survivors in hospital and announced an independent judicial committee to investigate bus safety. The government rightly ordered flags to be flown at half-mast and a minute’s silence on Monday to honour the fallen – sadly not well publicised. Many departments of the government are providing medical, financial, psychological and social support.

The people of Hong Kong expressed their sympathy with 2,000 blood donors flooding the Red Cross, with donors in Causeway Bay spilling out of the entrance. A fund set up to collect private subscriptions for the victims is at HK$50 million and counting. Money is no compensation for the loss of a loved one, but it is a sign of the depth of sympathy from ordinary people.

It is hard to find the words to comfort a bereaved person. Sometimes we stay away. Maybe we will avoid the person for weeks, avoiding the subject, or looking away when we see them for fear of making a mistake. This is our problem; the bereaved welcome the brief touch of an outstretched hand, an arm around the shoulder, or a handwritten note of sympathy – even if they are so hard to write.

Yet we have seen some signs of embarrassment. Under pressure, Lam said she would skip the annual Lunar New Year night parade “out of respect for the victims”. Then the government announced it was calling off Saturday’s Lunar New Year fireworks. Apparently, according to Chinese tradition, the spirit of a dead person returns home for a final farewell to loved ones on the seventh day (which falls on Saturday). 

Be proactive; show sympathy; write that heartfelt letter of support; give staff the time off that they need

I have attended a number of Chinese funerals, and loud (and occasionally illegal) fireworks are a necessary part of the sending off. Surely it would be better to hold the firework display, with a large portion of the community present to listen to a word of remembrance and period of silence.

Some have criticised the Jockey Club for not cancelling Lunar New Year horse racing, but they can make a statement of sympathy by holding a moment of silence or appealing for the condolence fund. Penning a few proactive heartfelt words of comfort is hard but it is necessary to provide the special support that any tragedy requires.

In Hong Kong we work hard and we play hard – but fair. Our business environment is tough and competitive – and so it should be. But occasionally we should turn our game face aside and show our weakness and humanity in compassion. Be proactive; show sympathy; write that heartfelt letter of support; give staff the time off that they need. Colleagues will repay that hand of friendship, for who knows – there but for the grace of God go I.

Richard Harris is a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster and financial expert witness