Time is not on the side of Hong Kong's democracy campaigners

Johnny Mok says given just 50 years of autonomy to experiment with its system of governance, Hong Kong must not squander the chance to reach a compromise on the 2017 election

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 5:06pm

Not long ago, a rain-drenched Singapore turned out en masse to bid farewell to its founding father Lee Kuan Yew. The state funeral procession began from Parliament House fronting the Padang, the very spot where, on August 9, 1965, thousands had come to witness Lee's proclamation of Singapore's independence. Almost 50 years have lapsed since that date. The outpouring of tributes paid to him by leaders from around the world, the raw emotions that have engulfed the city, and all the international indices which objectively verified the leaps and bounds of the country's progress over this half-century period, all bear testimony to Lee's phenomenal achievement for the once slum-infested backwater town of Southeast Asia. Some have called it miraculous.

The "Singapore Model" that Lee Kuan Yew built has been succinctly described as "a hybrid system of authoritarianism and democracy that vastly improved the well-being of his country's citizens". Critics have doubted whether this widely admired alternative to liberal democracy can ever be emulated successfully outside Singapore. Others have questioned the sustainability of the model in the absence of someone like Lee Kuan Yew, proposing that a more flexible and publicly accountable system would now work better to meet the changing demands of the people, especially in the area of dissent.

There is a sense that Singapore's stellar accomplishment is one of a kind, unique in its own time and place. Lee's legacy is firmly established, and a solid foundation laid for the country to evolve and hopefully outshine its past.

The Hong Kong special administrative region, likewise, has a unique model with no parallel anywhere else. It is defined in our Basic Law. This year is the 25th anniversary of its promulgation.

As with Singapore, Hong Kong also tops many economic indices, including being ranked the freest economy in the world for 21 years in a row.

On democratic developments, the Basic Law mandates the principle of "gradual and orderly progress". In this regard, we are now standing at a crossroads. The choice lies in whether we move ahead with the reform of the method of selecting the chief executive. The making of this choice will have profound consequences.

Under the Basic Law, "gradual and orderly progress" is translated into a specific formula so far as the election of chief executive is concerned. This is a model of consensus between three sides as set out in paragraph 7 of Annex 1; that is, a consensus between the Hong Kong SAR government (represented by the chief executive), the people of Hong Kong (represented by a two-thirds majority of Legislative Council members) and the central government (represented by the National People's Congress Standing Committee).

As their respective interests and concerns are not the same, this formula effectively requires a compromise, which has to take such a divergence of interests into account.

The "gradualness" of the pace is dictated by the time frame in which these parties can reach such a compromise on the way forward. If they cannot, then there is no "progress", and what Hong Kong people stand to lose is time.

This is because there is a guaranteed, albeit extendable, period of 50 years of autonomy, during which we have all the freedom to experiment in the creation of a system of progressively democratic government to serve the interests of Hong Kong and China as a whole. If successful, the system will no doubt continue beyond 2047. If the present round of reform fails, we will lose at least five more years (from 2017) and, for Legco reform, seven more years.

By 2024, over half way through the 50-year period, the question of democratic progress will inevitably be subsumed in the bigger issue of Hong Kong's future. Arguably, as time moves on, the relative bargaining power of the territory will diminish and the window for further experimentation will narrow.

While Lee Kuan Yew was the guiding light for Singapore in the 50 years since it was founded, Hong Kong does not have the luxury of looking to only one person, one ruling party, or one predominant political philosophy for answers. We just have the Basic Law.

By the design of the Basic Law, every Legco member is entitled to veto any reform concerning the chief executive's election, as much as the central government is entitled to lay down conditions for reform to go ahead. But time is not on our side.

The price of stalemate is that time will be wasted and opportunities squandered, when these precious resources could otherwise have been deployed to usher in, by way of consensus, a new form of democratic institution as a stepping stone for further reforms, not least of the Legco.

A way to break the current deadlock is by following not a particular leader, political faction or theory, but the wisdom of the Basic Law itself - the only light guiding us to make the best use of our 50-year period. While there will continue to be disputes ranging from issues of principle to shades of meaning, the faithful and pragmatic adherence to the true spirit of our mini-constitution will, I submit, give this city the best chance of building a legacy that makes future generations proud.

Johnny Mok is a senior counsel and member of the Basic Law Committee