Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Our Chief Executive Carrie Lam is having a pig of year. She’s in a thicket, struggling to make progress against snags on all sides. There are external threats to Hong Kong, but most of the troubles she faces are of her own making. Having misread the political scene, she went on to insult her support base. Also, her past bungling conduct has caught up with her. In fairness, Lam achieved something that’s remarkable. She’s managed to unify our quarrelling politicians against her. Well done!
Her cruel treatment of the poor elderly in our community is not playing well. Even the pro-Beijing crowd, who utter support as a matter of course, are backing away. With district and legislative council elections on the horizon, the political class is keen to keep the public sweet. Lam’s ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to policy formulation isn’t welcome when the atmosphere is so febrile. To rub salt in the wound, she responded to criticism with a scornful tone.
Taking HK$200- off the poor looks petty and is. Then Lam jumped into ‘totally out of touch’ mode by comparing herself to the elderly working-poor. It’s one of the most absurd public statements I’ve heard a leader make.
Then she scrambled to get the pro-government lot back on-side, seeking to split them from the opposition. It sort of worked, although she’s not out of the woods yet. I endorsed her policy address. It contained welcome initiatives, although I also missed the signs that she intended to punish the poor. In effect, she’s walloping the grass-roots citizens who built this place. That she didn’t see the adverse reaction is telling.
Her ministers do not help her. With the notable exception of John Lee, the Secretary for Security, she’s surrounded by the mediocre, damaged goods or the incompetent. Questions of integrity and honesty dog Theresa Cheng, the Secretary for Justice. With Frank Chan, Lam appointed a Secretary for Transport and Housing who is not up to the job.
Likewise, the Secretary for Food and Health. She failed (again) to prepare for the influenza season, leaving hospital staff struggling. Her response is the usual short-term fix of throwing money with abandon at the problem. No strategy or planning is evident. Hospitals are in crisis, with staff taking to the streets in protest because the government is not listening.
Part of the problem is the failure to deal with the medical cartel that limits the registration of overseas doctors. This approach, in turn, pushes up costs by limiting the number of doctors. Lam won’t even discuss the issue. Thus year after year we lurch through a crisis. Of course, it’s the poorest in our society who suffer. Lam and her team aren’t lining up for 10-hours to see a doctor. They have private clinics or backdoor access.
The unfolding crisis over the MTR Shatin link exposes the incompetence of Frank Chan. Furthermore, some of the blame must rest on Lam’s shoulders. She created a culture that allowed officials to escape sanctions for their failures and willful blindness.
In 2015, tests by the Democratic Party found contaminated water in many public housing estates with excessive levels of lead. The threat to health, especially the development of children, was evident. A lack of supervision by the government allowed contractors to use lead to solder pipes.
As Chief Secretary, Lam intervened to decree that no one is responsible. In her eyes, system failures are to blame. With that statement, she signalled to officials they’d not be held accountable. Thus, it’s arguable that she created the culture that allowed the MTR scandal to spiral out of control.
The MTR saga continues to unfold in a disheartening series of admissions. A lack of supervision by the government (again), missing documents and hints of corruption taint the whole episode. At first, Lam limited the scope of an inquiry. Now events have forced her hand, and the investigating judge has a broader remit. Blame bounces around in all directions, but ultimately it rests with the government.
Frank Chan failed to get a grip of the MTR Corporation. They, in turn, have slipped from the plinth of Hong Kong’s most admired organisations. Lam declined the resignation of the head of the MTR earlier this year. She held Frederick Ma in place despite mounting evidence of shoddy construction and worse. You could argue she wanted him to clear up the mess, or he’s a shield to be thrown under the bus later. Either way, vast amounts of public money are wasted as the media drip-feeds us the revelations.
One DAB politician expressed frustration to me “ Lam takes our support for granted. She feels we will agree to anything.” That’s changing.
Grand concrete pouring projects are burning up public money, while deep societal issues remain unchallenged. If the government is keen on construction how about building a barrier to protect Tai Po, Shatin and Ma On Shan from the next tidal surge? How about getting serious on air pollution instead of pandering to vested interests? That’s where the money needs to go.
Convenor of the Executive Council, Bernard Chan, recently expressed concern that popularism is rising in Hong Kong. He foresees increasing public ‘cynicism and anger’. No wonder when officials pursue policies that damage whole sections of our community.
Is Lam capable of listening given her strong style? In a way, she's trapped by her administrative officer hinterland. One flaw of the British colonial civil service training is it created senior officials unmarked by doubt. They know best. Add to that a taint of Catholic infallibility, and you have a potent mix. Lam has promised a more humble approach in future. Let’s see if that happens.
"For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.