A hard truth from Mahathir and how it applies to Hong Kong

City could learn from Malaysian leader’s message on policymaking and the fleeting nature of a politician’s popularity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 10:03pm

“I can’t always be popular. One day I’ll become unpopular because when you are in the government, you have to do unpopular things. So that is not something permanent,” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post last week.

In a candid chat, the new leader of this major Asean country touched on a wide range of topics, from the Malaysia-China relationship and his views and conditions regarding Chinese investment, to the sensitive South China Sea issue.

It was also an opportunity for us to observe this legendary politician, the world’s oldest elected leader and a man with a very strong will and clear goal.

At the age of 92, rich in experience in dealing with all sorts of politics, he knows too well the power game rule – popularity or unpopularity “is not something permanent”.

This statement is more than telling when we look at Hong Kong. Although our city and Malaysia cannot be directly compared, they have one thing in common – leaders face the same hard truth: no policy can please all.

Politics means governance, which involves policymaking that will move the cheese of either this sector or that. Interest groups of all types are everywhere in Hong Kong, and controversies are not uncommon, whatever the major policies, whether they concern political or livelihood issues, and whether generated by this government or previous ones.

The soon-to-come vacancy tax on empty new flats is a good example.

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And over the past week we saw the latest case of conflicting interests causing controversy.

After witnessing the signing of a memorandum of understanding in the Netherlands, the government welcomed the idea of turning an unused plot of land saved for Hong Kong Disneyland’s second-stage expansion into a temporary flower garden for tourism promotion.

The project may eventually become Hong Kong’s first Dutch-style flower theme park. Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah, accompanying Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on her Europe trip, was there for the ceremony and expressed support for the project.

Understandably, it is hard for such an idea to generate applause from all quarters. Some questioned why Hong Kong needed such a garden and how many more visitors it would attract, given that we already have the famous annual flower festival at Victoria Park in the city centre, not to mention the Lunar New Year flower market there.

Also opposing the idea are those who believe every piece of available land should be used for housing above anything else, but of course people in the tourism industry could not wait to see it go ahead.

The government explained that this piece of land could only be developed in compliance with the theme park’s needs, since a contract with Disneyland was signed in 1999 promising just that, and it was a matter of maintaining the administration’s credibility.

But still, there were voices suggesting that by applying for a waiver and allowing some flexibility, using the site for housing was not impossible. The debate could go on and on.

Much effort has been made by Lam’s administration to build better social harmony since she took office last July – differences have been made and can be seen in the overall social atmosphere.

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However, more trouble is brewing.

Fresh legal challenges have been launched against the government’s co-location legislation that would allow mainland law to be exercised over a designated checkpoint area within the West Kowloon terminus of the cross-border, high-speed railway. And the arguments are endless over the public consultation on identifying land for housing.

Also looming in the future is the ultra-sensitive issue of national security legislation, which the city will eventually have to adopt.

Mahathir was speaking for himself, but his hard truth applies very much to Hong Kong.