Debate on Hong Kong independence is possible, as long as it’s rational and respectful
Ronald Ng says there is no conflict between upholding our freedom of speech and staying true to our tradition of honouring our teachers and authority figures. In fact, an open, dispassionate discussion will have many benefits
The pursuit of freedom of speech and faith in the scientific method of inquiry were born in the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century. Those ideas allowed Europe to break free of the intellectually suffocating power of the church. The rallying calls of the time were Voltaire’s statement, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, and the motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in verba, or “take nobody’s word for it”. These calls broke the shackles the church had on the intellectual and scientific developments in Europe and, over time, led to the development of the concept of human rights.
While those ideas were taking hold in Europe, in China, the Confucian notion of respect for the teacher was the norm. In Asian societies today that have been shaped by both Western modernity and Confucian thinking, there is a constant tension between obeying one’s teachers and, by extension, all authority, and exercising the right to speak up and question authorities.
As children, we tend to listen to our elders. But, in order for innovation and advancement to take place in society, we also need to question and challenge long-held ideas which might be wrong scientifically, or inappropriate for a different age.
Is it possible to act according to the spirit of “freedom of speech” and “Nullius in verba” while at the same time upholding the Confucian precept of honouring the teacher? Yes, I would say, if that freedom is exercised with dignity and decorum, and with due respect to the teachers and authorities, without the use of foul language, or violence.
Watch how Hong Kong’s pro-independence banner saga unfolds
A hot-button issue in Hong Kong today is the appearance of posters and banners, at the Chinese University campus, advocating Hong Kong independence. This brings up two issues. One, if the authorities removed the banners and posters, they would certainly be within their legal right, and, second, if the students defended the posters and banners, even going to the extent of using violence, then that would be going beyond the precept of respecting one’s teachers.
I was an honorary secretary of the University of Hong Kong student union in the 1960s. That was the time when Singapore gained its independence. I remember the student union held a forum to discuss the possibility of Hong Kong following the example of Singapore to become an independent country.
At the time, we believed it was not our place as students to actively engage in political movements. Our prime duty was to study and learn. The forum on Hong Kong independence was more an intellectual exercise to learn about the political process and reflect on Hong Kong’s unique position.
Perhaps the Chinese University students could learn more about Hong Kong’s political situation by organising a similar forum? Surely, this would be within the parameters set by both the principle of freedom of speech, as well as our tradition of honouring the teacher.
Just as we did in the 1960s, those who attend a similar forum today are likely to find out how Hong Kong is different from Singapore, and that independence for the SAR is not possible. Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. But China will never kick out Hong Kong.
Singapore was – and is – very dependent on the water supply from Malaysia. In the same way, Hong Kong depends on mainland China for water. If Hong Kong were to become independent against the central government’s wishes, could it survive without water from an angry China?
Commercial airlines flying out of Singapore’s Changi Airport quickly find that they are in Malaysia’s air space. Similarly, planes flying out of Hong Kong’s airport at Chek Lap Kok find themselves in Chinese airspace in no time. Would an angry China allow that?
Moreover, to be independent, one needs international recognition. Is any country willing to offend China and recognise the independence of Hong Kong?
By all means, students should exercise the freedom of speech that is available in Hong Kong – but not with violence. They need common sense, intelligence and wisdom.
When I taught in the medical department of HKU, I told my charges what I also tell my children: that they were free to challenge me because I could be wrong. The only requirement was that they did so respectfully. The lesson here is that we should think about and discuss issues in a logical and dispassionate manner. Perhaps university authorities could engage students in a dialogue over the issue of Hong Kong independence in a similar manner.
Ronald Ng is a haematologist practising in Singapore, where he is also a certified mediator and former major in the Singapore Armed Forces. He was formerly a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and London University