It is regrettable when a need is perceived to pass a law to ensure respect for a country’s national anthem. It is more so when a legislative process to cultivate patriotism and national identity is undignified by acrimonious debate, delaying tactics and unparliamentary conduct, such as the release of a foul-smelling liquid in the chamber by opponents of the bill. The Legislative Council finally passed the controversial legislation on Thursday, with nearly all pan-democrats abstaining from the vote. Hong Kong may be far from alone in now having a law, to be gazetted next weekend, which criminalises intentional public insults to the anthem, March of the Volunteers . But, in taking nearly 18 months to pass it, the Legislative Council has surely set the city apart. The path of the anthem bill was hardly smoothed by controversy such as debate about the extent of the city’s autonomy from Beijing, concerns about the now-shelved extradition bill and anti-government protests in support of five unrelated demands. Under the new law anyone found guilty of misusing or insulting the anthem faces a fine of up to HK$50,000 (US$6,451) and three years’ imprisonment. In the event, the pro-establishment majority in Legco voted down all 21 amendments proposed by the pan-democrat camp, including one for the reduction or even elimination of criminal liability for offenders. But that does not mean the legislation cannot be improved. Questions of definition and implementation remain. Whether the crime of insulting the anthem has been committed comes down to interpretation of the law’s wording by the courts. The law defines an insult as undermining the anthem’s dignity as a symbol and a sign of China. Such a broad definition is open to subjective interpretation. On the face of it, booing and hissing the anthem at international football matches might appear a clear-cut case of insult. But how do police positively identify offenders among a crowd of thousands and determine which ones to prosecute? The government’s answer is that more time is needed to investigate breaches of the law and offences committed on the internet. So it has allowed two years for investigations, compared with six months for most offences handled by magistrates, including a recently passed law against desecration of the national flag. Prosecution of this kind of alleged offence after such a long time will invite scrutiny for political motives. To avoid it, police should aim to complete their investigations much earlier. If one intention behind the law is to cultivate a sense of one nation among Hongkongers as well as deter gratuitous provocations, implementation must be carefully and discretely targeted; otherwise, it could result in even more confrontation in society.