Carrie Lam

What Carrie Lam could teach the MTR about the art of saying sorry

Alice Wu says while the MTR Corp and its chief have been unapologetic over the shoddy construction work and inadequate quality control in some of its projects, Hong Kong’s chief executive is setting an example with her genuine apology

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 2:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 7:44pm

One day in July last year, a man threatened a fellow commuter with a Swiss army knife for being unapologetic after bumping into him at the Admiralty MTR station.

The chairman of the Mass Transit Railway Corporation, Frederick Ma Si-hang, would probably attribute that kind of an overreaction to the Hong Kong summer heat. Ma was given a hard time after he blamed the heat for his arrogant dismissal of reporters’ questions – and the fact that he “didn’t pray that morning”.

Reasonable people would agree that pulling a knife on someone is no way to teach a lesson about the importance of an apology, but I suspect most of us understand where the deep frustration came from.

The outcry that greeted Ma’s excuses was a testament to that frustration. He stopped short of apologising for his behaviour that day, when he was questioned about the test performance of Hong Kong’s high-speed rail link to the mainland.

And the MTR, to this day, has yet to apologise for any of its recent scandals that raise public safety concerns, including its failure to report problems, issues in quality control, improper oversight, incidents of corner-cutting, and its seeming inability to detect, stop or punish shoddy construction. In the face of these many shortcomings, its unapologetic attitude is an affront to professional standards and public trust.

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However, just as it seems the epidemic of unapologetic arrogance has spread to all corners of our society, including every echelon of government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has proven herself to be the exception.

The inability to own up is seen as some sort of strength, when it is really a display of cowardice

Lam should be applauded for apologising for her impatient response to a reporter at the media briefing last Tuesday ahead of a cabinet meeting. Her impatience at the reporter’s question, which was asked in English, was obvious, and it sparked a row over whether she was sidelining the English language or saw answering media queries as a “waste of time”. Lam offered a personal apology late that evening for causing confusion and reiterated her commitment to the language.

Apologies are so rare nowadays that when they are offered without delay and without conditions, it is refreshing. We have all sorts of conditional “apologies” that are not apologies at all. We know them well — they try to shift the blame, and not so subtly, too.

Just last week in Australia, New South Wales Senator David Leyonhjelm appeared on a television show to defend his use of offensive language. When confronted for his blatant use of sexist slurs and calling someone a “b*tch”, Leyonhjelm responded with, “If you took offence at that, I’m sorry you took offence at that”. When pressed on whether he would admit that calling someone a “b*tch” was wrong, he responded with, “Oh no, no, no … What I am saying is I’m sorry she’s taken offence.”

Say sorry by all means, but make it sincere

That’s the sort of non-apology that we hear so often now. It’s doubly offensive because the real message behind it is the condescending notion of “I’m sorry you are too sensitive”. Somehow, the inability to own up is seen as some sort of strength, when it is really a display of cowardice.

It comes from a fear of being attacked and speaks to our obsession to be “right” at all costs – to the extent of denying other people’s feelings. It’s arrogance and ignorance rolled into one. Such an attitude shuts down communication, and an escalation of conflict is the ensured outcome.

Thus, we must recognise those who say “I’m sorry” genuinely.

It wasn’t the first time Lam had apologised. Last autumn, she said sorry for causing anxiety over her suggestion that 800,000 public rental flats were enough for Hong Kong. Lam conceded that she needed to be more sensitive to public sentiment.

It’s certainly not a waste of time or effort to apologise.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA