Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Hong Kong people have suffered many shameful indignities. The awful treatment at the hands of the British, who removed the UK right of abode while negotiating the handover must be in the top five. The isolation the community felt during SARS, abandoned and shunned, remains a traumatic memory. Corruption amongst well-paid and pampered senior officials also sticks in the claw.
And yet one of the most egregious humiliations came in the form of the Mandatory Provident Fund. Portrayed as saving for retirement, the MPF is no such thing. It's nothing more than an exercise in transferring hard-earned citizens money to fund managers. They are the ultimate beneficiaries.
In the process, the MPF removes choice by chiselling away at people’s freedoms. It’s clear that whoever conceived the MPF didn’t have the interests of the ordinary Hong Kong citizen in mind. Because as a pension scheme, it is a stunning failure. In bizarre new proposals, consultants are asking people to throw more cash into this failing product.
The MPF is approaching the 20-year mark. Flawed from the outset, the MPF scheme is based on myth and faulty data. The most unfortunate thing is the government has harnessed the full weight of the law to enforce this theft of people's earnings.
Meanwhile, sitting above is the bloated Mandatory Provident Fund Authority. A vast bureaucracy of dubious merit oversees the scheme. Some suspect that the authority is operating in cahoots with the finance industry to the detriment of the public. The failure to press for transparency on fees is one example of the failings of the MPFA.
Some 20 years ago, the so-called demographic time bomb myth prompted many governments to fret. The prevailing view was that citizens would face a bleak future if they didn’t prepare for retirement. With fewer people working and an ageing population, it's surmised that funds for pensions would run out. The financial industry seized upon this sentiment. They campaigned with relentless energy by funding studies and lobbyists to stoke fear.
Meanwhile, their greedy eyes set on the vast profits from capturing peoples savings. And what better way to ensure this than pushing legislation that forces the public to surrender their money.
Yet, the demographic time bomb is a dud. Yes, the number of elderly folks is increasing, and the percentage in work is decreasing. But, as people live longer and stay fitter, they can work. They are thus helping to offset the increase in the retired/working ratio. Plus, because people do not have children, they have a higher disposable income and are less prone to poverty. They spend less on child-rearing, increasing their ability to support themselves in retirement.
Besides, productivity gains as a result of innovation and technology mean fewer workers need to support each retiree. We no longer live in a world when one farmer supports one retiree. That simple equation does not apply. In summary, we fell for a distorted story.
Having perpetrated that crafty act, the mechanism of the MPF is restrictive, bureaucratic and expensive. For example, citizens are not allowed to invest in tracker funds, shares or property to secure a pension. Instead, we are all forced into buying products from a cartel that charges excessive fees. The lack of transparency and real competition between the MPF providers means we can’t assess why the fees are so high.
Plus those fees can wipe out gains. Hidden factors mean the averages quoted by the industry may be distorted figures. It's hard to tell. I’ve struggled to cut through the costs and hidden fees to understand the truth. That’s part of the problem for the laymen. If the MPFA served the public interest, it could fulfil this role. Instead, the information it provides is inadequate and disjointed.
Now, I’m prepared to admit I may have got this wrong. But in simple terms, over five years, all accumulated fees could amount to as much as $138 for every $1,000 invested. That’s a rip-off deal.
Next up is the offset mechanism. This process allows employers to seize employees MPF contributions. When making a worker redundant, the employer can reach into the workers pocket, and take money. That money is then given back to the worker to cover the employer's statutory obligations on severance pay. From July 2001 to December 2014, the accumulated amount of offsetting was $25 billion. As a result, the employees made redundant saw their MPF funds depleted. It’s dishonest. David Webb has a proposed solution here.
As a self-employed person, I’m required to contribute to the MPF despite the fact I already have an adequate pension. Also, there is a labyrinth of detail I must manoeuvre through. Of course, fees apply at every stage.
In many regards, the public is either blind to the failings of the MPF or unwilling to confront the issue. Eventually, the penny may drop. Although, in 40 years it will be too late to whine and moan. By then the authors of this travesty will be either dead or retired on their civil service pensions. Yep, that’s right. The civil servants who dreamed up this scheme didn’t need to join it. Meanwhile, the MPF will continue to keep fund managers in the style they are accustomed to.
In 2015 three British schoolgirls, aged 15, departed the UK to join the terrorist group 'Islamic State of Iraq'. In a carefully planned enterprise, they stole and sold family jewellery to fund their trip. Besides, its suspected that family members provided funds although they dispute this.
The girls from Bethnal Green in London allegedly radicalised through contact with an IS recruiter. There is also evidence that they engaged with radicals in a local mosque. How they purchased their air-tickets to Turkey remains unknown. Although it’s certain someone facilitated their departure. Moreover, members of their families didn’t intervene or alert the authorities.
On arrival in Turkey, the girls made their way to Syria to almost immediately marry IS fighters. In effect, the girls were to be broodmares for the fledging Islamic caliphate.
In recent years, IS undertook terrorist attacks across the world including in the UK. The 2017 Manchester Arena bombing during an Ariana Grande concert killed 22 and injured over 800. An IS operative carried out that suicide attack with his specific target young girls enjoying a night out.
IS is now facing defeat on the battlefield. With its territory shrinking, the proposed caliphate has evaporated. The women of IS have fled. One of the British girls, Shamima Begum, has resurfaced in a refugee camp. Until weeks ago she provided active support to IS and this week gave birth to her third child by an IS fighter. Her husband is a Dutch national. His whereabouts are unknown, while her two previous babies died. Begum is seeking to return to the UK.
Of course, Begum’s request to return home is provoking a strong reaction in many quarters. Justifiable so. Katy Hopkins sums it up well here.
Hopkins makes a compelling case, yet there are many fascinating aspects to this situation. For starters, Begum is not helping her situation by the interviews she is giving to the British media. They’ve flocked to the refugee camp, providing her with a great deal of publicity. Begum may come to regret this high-profile approach.
She is now 19-years-old and presents an un-remorseful image. Open enough to assert she has no regrets, nonetheless she expects Britain to take her back. She talks of accepting the IS violence, and of not flinching at finding severed heads in rubbish bins. Begum knew that IS butchered thousands of people and inspired terror attacks in the UK. Still, she opted to remain until the end as their stronghold collapsed. Up to the last moment, she fed the ‘caliphate’, providing logistical support.
Just as crucial, she and her friends helped give IS credibility. They provided an example to others supporting recruitment efforts.
Begum is a collaborator to a terrorist group that murdered innocent British children. With that, Begum forfeited her rights. Only now because her side lost is she seeking to run back to the comfort of Bethnal Green. So, my gut reaction is that under no circumstances should Begum enter the UK. She made her bed - literally - with IS and now needs to lay there.
Yet, matters are not that straight forward because there is a legal position to consider. It appears under international law that Britain is obliged to take her back. The bloggingbarrister makes the case.
In essence, she can’t be stripped of her British citizenship because she’d be stateless. Plus, if Britain is to keep any credibility, it needs to adhere to these international principles. Therein lies the rub.
The Home Secretary, Mr Javid, was all for excluding her. “My message is clear if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return.”
He's now gone silent on the subject. His legal advisers have probably pointed out that his hands are tied.
Thus in time, Begum may end up back in the UK with her child. If that happens, here is my proposal. First, she must provide the intelligence services with her full and honest cooperation. This process will include a thorough debrief. That debrief will continue until she can give no more useful information. In that process, if evidence for a criminal prosecution emerges, she should face the full weight of the law.
Further, social services should examine her fitness to keep the child. Finally, if released into the wider community, she must have a tag and report to a police station at least weekly. If she does not comply, then immediate detention must be sought.
Of course, the liberal media led by the Guardian and the Observer are already fighting for her return. They and her lawyer are playing the usual ‘victim’ card. Unfortunately for them, Begum didn’t appear in the least traumatised when speaking to the media. She was coherent, controlled and smiling at times. This ‘victim’ status dishonours those killed in Manchester and elsewhere. Though they would not admit it, the Guardian and others are prepared to accept the death of innocent people as a sacrifice to their poisoned agenda.
Meanwhile, Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer representing the Begum family, is throwing up a smoke screen of accusations. He goes too far to blame everyone else but the girls. For him, it’s the fault of the police, the girl's school and the local council. These assertions are palpable nonsense. If blame lies anywhere, it's with the family and the mosques that failed to deal with radical elements.
Akunjee elects to ignore the stark truth that these girls acted with agency to formulate and then execute their departure. And even now Begum refuses to admit her mistake. Begum had a choice, and she opted to support the killers of the innocent. She must now accept the consequences.
So, I propose that Begum can return home but as a ward of the State. She must cooperate in full and face scrutiny for all her actions. Unless she agrees to that, then leave her to the mercy of the IS fighters she willfully embraced.
Sometimes even an old curmudgeon like me struggles to find things to rant about. Then, like today, it lands in your lap. The banner above appeared on my afternoon stroll. Where do I begin?
There is a telling scene in the movie ‘Meet the Fockers’. The CIA father - played to perfection by Robert De Niro - mocks his son-in-law's ninth place sportsday ribbon. Well, Mr Fungus Fung, has declared himself a full member of that under-achievers club.
Anyway, am I supposed to celebrate that you’ve achieved (sorry- ‘successfully added’) a pedestrian crossing to a location two miles from the banner. Not that distance should in any way negate this stunning triumph.
Of course, Mr Fung could have attempted something else. How about improving the lot of the elderly working poor by seeking funding for a community or medical centre? Alternatively, if that’s stretch, then pursue a transport management policy that mitigates congestion. Perhaps he could work with the police and other agencies to help relieve the illegal parking by agreeing a strategy. Then engage with the local community to support and sell the policy.
Maybe Mr Fung had those things in mind. I don't know because all I have to work on is the banner. Or was it the case that the low-hanging fruit of a pedestrian crossing was too tempting. By the way, I don't wish to be a pedant but the government 'added' the crossing at the taxpayer's expense. All Mr Fung did was make a proposal for which he receives a monthly payment of HK$32,150.
But wait a minute. There are other road crossings in the area. None of these too far away. So, this raises a question. Is Mr Fung’s crossing really necessary? No doubt he felt it was.
Mr Fung is a member of the Liberal Party. The term ‘liberal’ shouldn’t get confused with the traditional meaning of broad-based, humanistic and open to ideas. The Liberal Party is a pro-business and conservative political group established in 1993 to protect the interests of a few. All its LegCo members are from the functional constituencies. They represent a small circle of self-interest. To his credit, Mr Fung is elected.
With the aid of google translate, I was able to find that Mr Fung is a Master of Arts, Oxford University (Oriental Studies). His bio is only in Chinese. He’s not deemed his non-Chinese reading constituents important enough to provide an English version.
As I stood to bask in the glow of representative government that Mr Fung’s banner emanates, a group of young adults joined me. I asked, “What do you think?”. My question met with laughter and then words I won’t publish here. I surmise Mr Fung won’t be getting their votes.
The appearance of the banner heralds the approaching district council elections. Soon we will see Mr Fung and friends standing at major intersections or on traffic roundabouts waving at startled motorists. That’s what counts as canvassing in this town.
But I don’t wish to be unfair. I’ve worked with several district councillors who were first-rate. They’re committed to their community, embedded with strong grassroots support and a grasp of issues. DAB members excel in this regard. Highly organised and exhibiting a disciplined approach, they proved active representatives. The so-called democrats were less engaged at a local level. My impression is most so-called democrats saw the district council as a forum to further a personal agenda or as a stepping stone to LegCo.
So, Mr Fung, my message to you - do better. Is the bar so long that suggesting a pedestrian crossing is worthy of merit. If you are going to boast about your achievements at least do something substantial. Pedestrian crossings don’t cut the mustard when we have big issues in this town.
(To be read in the voice of Alan Bennett. For the uninitiated, listen here.)
Complete whiteout; isolated from the din of the city. I set off down the access road to the Tai Tam Upper Reservoir. At seven thirty few people are up and about. This could be the Lake District, the wooded part of the Scottish highlands or Dalby Forest. Only the lack of tall trees tells of a semi-tropical climate. I'm in a bubble of ten feet visibility.
Droplets shower down with each passing gust as moisture-soaked trees sway. The stench of dog shit that usually lingers at the country park barrier is gone. Overnight rain has washed away the crap that lazy dog walkers are too idle to pick up. It’s the amahs who walks the dog around here.
The pigs have wreaked havoc in the bins again. Plastic bottles, banana skins and assorted litter are laid out. It’s all sorted, studied and graded. Anything edible is gone. The efforts of the park wardens to secure the bins once again defeated. This time they've upended the whole container with latches broken. You have to admire their ingenuity.
According to those who know these things, pigs rank above dogs in the smartness stakes. They can play video games with more focus than a chimp.
Weeks ago the plastic bins near the park entrance succumbed to head-butting and chewing. The sides ripped out with ease once the pig got leverage. Fibreglass bins hold up better. Best of all is a wooden stockade-type structure in the BBQ area. Height and heavy wooden planks are keeping the hogs at bay. Anyway, the great unwashed leave enough half cooked meat on the ground. That’s sustained the pigs for a day or so.
In the distance voices. Can’t tell from which direction. The chatter of excited Cantonese arrives first, as a group of elderly walkers emerges from the murk. Of course, one has his radio on full volume. No surprise, he's broadcasting a Chinese opera of the cat strangling variety. A full-throated conversation battles for attention above the caterwauling.
“Jo San” is yelled my way. Only the Cantonese can make ‘good morning’ sound like a declaration of war. Then they’re gone. Screeching opera lingers awhile, then fades. It’s silent again.
Alone, I press on, descending towards the dam. The wind is picking up. It brings the fog and dampness in sideways. No bird song today. The trees thrash around as the breeze strengthens, then eases off.
On the dam top, it’s blowing a gale. My cap needs restraining; otherwise, it will take flight. Funnelled by the valley, the air rushes up from Tai Tam Bay, then blasts against the dam wall. I feel the chill. Don’t linger here. A pack of runners hurtles by heads down. All backpacks and day-glow outfits.
I cut back to ascend to Parkview, taking the forest walk to avoid the road. I soon regret this. After a matter of minutes, I’m soaked as overhanging trees, and encroaching bushes spray me. On the summit the small shelter is empty. No views today out over Tai Tam Bay with the Dragons Back dominating the horizon.
I’m back on the road, as silent figures come and go in the mist. Expats in t-shirts and shorts, signalling they don’t fear the damp. Locals wrapped in the latest Patagonia offering. More a fashion statement than a hike. They’ll soon be sweating. A Chinese boy passes me dressed for full arctic conditions. Is he expecting snow? His helicopter Mum is hovering in the background. In the summer he’s the sort of kid you’ll see with a towel wrapped around his neck against the horrors of perspiration. You know in ten minutes that arctic outfit will be gone either that or he passes out from heat exhaustion.
A few of the regulars greet me. The lanky Brit is striding along with his tawny wife in tow. She's had far too much sun. Mr and Mrs Wong, Stephen with a 'ph' as he told me on first contact. He once had a restaurant in Sheffield.
The cleaners are busy. They gather the debris from last night's BBQ crowd. Of course, the pigs have seen off anything digestible. Working with the ants, they'd soon clean up.
A gaggle of amahs is shepherding assorted poodles and designer pooches. They don’t venture too far down the road. Once Fido has done the business, they’ll loiter to chat. I want to shout "Clean up that shit!" but don't.
The Europeans around here favour dogs of the Heinz-57 variety. The ‘tong gau’ is medium sized, far from handsome but an intelligent mixed-breed. I note a Chinese group dedicated to these mongrels. Glad to see that not everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed with pedigrees.
The rumbling of the Parkview air-conditioning plant tells me I’m back at the barrier. More hill walkers are gathering, awaiting friends before setting off. A child is already complaining that he’s bored. His mother thrusts a mobile phone into his eager hands. He squats to start playing a game. Why bother kid? Even a pig can tackle a video game. Come to think of it; I reckon the pig is more sentient than that child.
Anyway, coffee and toast awaits me.
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.”
It never leaves a favourable impression when the super-rich tell the rest of us how to save the planet. The annual bash in Davos turns this virtue posturing into an art form. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is the event's official title. And the theme this year? ‘Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in an Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. What the f**k does that mean? Answers on a postcard, please.
Every year, the self-proclaimed great and good gather in the Swiss mountains to blather about the world’s problems. In the process, they wash their guilt away in the pristine mountain air. Unfortunately for them, a stench of hypocrisy hangs over this orgy of self-indulgence.
In attendance are about 3000 folks: the majority European men, and amongst them a fair number of tax dodgers. Topping that list is Saint Bono, the patron saint of sunglasses, virtue signalling and crap rock. Joining him are a multitude of billionaires, dodgy politicians, and royalty. Prince William put in an appearance, and David Attenborough spoke. I also note Jane Goodall, the primatologist and anthropologist, was present. I can only assume to study the antics of the most alpha of alpha males.
Jane must be disappointed that Trump stayed away, as did President Xi and Putin. The opportunity of watching this lot interact could produce a lifetime's worth of deliberations. Better than watching chimps go to war.
Of course, Bono and his mates expressed concern about global warming and pollution. In an acknowledgement of this did they opt to arrive by bicycle, hybrid car or train? No, they deployed 1,500 private jets.
Saint Bono treated us to his views on capitalism and how we need to tackle poverty. Here’s an idea for addressing poverty. Bono pay your taxes. The Paradise Papers saga pulled back the veil on the deceit that is Bono. In short, he and his mates used elaborate deals that shifted their money around to avoid tax. That he fronts up at Davos to lecture on poverty is absurd in the extreme.
Don't confuse Davos with an egalitarian event. Even amongst the elite, there is a pecking order. A tiered badge system has the very top folks issued a white badge with a hologram. Journalists get a yellow badge that is easy to spot and so avoided. Individual rooms are out of bounds unless you have a white badge.
The WEF defends itself “we created a shared space for peer-to-peer conversations and that the key was to get leaders to realise they have a shared interest in the problem.” Wonderful words. It’s just that action appears thin on the ground. Insiders portray the event as one massive party disguised as an important deliberation. What emerges of benefit is not evident.
Could I suggest that ‘shared space’ would be more credible if the forum adopted an African township or a rustbelt city as its venue? Unlikely, because the participants need high-end hotels and don’t want to rub shoulders with real poverty.
It’s worth pointing out that the WEF is a club that you pay to join, although they make great play of inviting certain people to speak. Do these invitees get a white badge?
Without irony the 'white badges' discuss how the poor should change their lifestyles to avoid climate change. That stench is rising above the Swiss mountaintops.
I suspect the game may be up for Davos; without Trump and Xi Jinping in the house, it garnered less attention. Also, the rich folks are beginning to recognise Davos exposes them to ridicule. For the most part, the corporate elite now treats it as another business meeting.
Our own Chief Executive attended boosting about inclusiveness in society. She failed to mention she’s treating the elderly poor with contempt or the massive wealth gap in Hong Kong. She didn’t show pictures of old women collecting cardboard to scratch a living. No mention either of people sleeping in MacDonalds because housing is so expensive. Davos is the perfect forum for Carrie Lam because you can get away with talking nonsense.
The one highlight of this years event came from guest speaker Rutgers Bergman. He's a Dutch historian. As the week went on, he grew annoyed at the attitude of the 'white badges' to his suggestion that they need to pay their fair share. In his final panel discussion, he went for it. He told the audience they must stop avoiding their responsibility to pay tax. This idea didn’t go down well. But, it made Bergman an instant sensation in the real world.
Davos is starting to look tired and irrelevant. That stench may be a rotting body. Anyway, I’ll check in next year for more lectures from pop stars and the super-rich about how I should behave. Meanwhile, they’ve jetted off into the sunset with their consciouses soothed.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.