Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Common sense in an uncommon degree, is what the world calls wisdom. - Coleridge
The Food Environmental Health Department (FEHD) took another kicking this week. In the face of mounting pressure, they waived a HK$1,500- fine against a 70-year-old. She worked collecting waste-paper. It's a terrible indictment of Hong Kong that the elderly need to do this to maintain a living.
The lady stood accused of placing waste paper on the pavement. This thereby created an obstruction. The case should never have been brought.
These old folks are independent types, who provide a valuable service by recycling stuff. It’s tough work that on average generates about HK$700- a month. This supplements their small pensions and any meagre government help.
Cardboard collectors are a manifestation of the ‘Lion Rock Spirit’ - tough, resolute people who make their own way in the world. The very backbone of Hong Kong. Most don’t want to rely on government handouts. Regrettably, they’re also an easy target for the FEHD.
Without political clout, little education nor understanding of the law, the elderly are a stress-free case for FEHD enforcers. Plus, operating in large squads, the FEHD intimidate by their numbers. They sweep in, seize the exhibits, then convey the victim to a police station for processing. It’s not unusual to see teams of eight picking up one elderly person.
I’ve seen it, time and time again. It’s a dispiriting saga, that's a blemish on Hong Kong.
And yet, the FEHD appears reluctant to tackle other types of obstruction. Garages, shops and parallel traders are also guilty of causing blockages. In the public mind, FEHD is lenient to these people. Is it because their pugnacious in their response, and less likely to cooperate? You guess. After all human nature, is too take the easy option. Moreover, there is another dynamic at work that doesn’t make the headlines. Processes and systems that drive FEHD to operate in this way.
As one commentator recently noted, FEHD can exercise discretion. They do this when dealing with large supermarket chains piling boxes on the pavement. Yet, the perception is the elderly have no such favour. Discretion itself is problematic. It's created as a consequence of the way offences are defined. This applies across the law.
What forms obstruction? It’s ill-defined and subjective. Does a tired lady shopper who rests her shopping bag on the ground qualify for prosecution. Clearly, not. No court would accept that.
How FEHD teaches or controls the exercise of discretion by its officers is unclear. Here is some insight. The stated policy is that officers exercise reasonableness and sensitivity. Also, the department makes it clear it does not use arrests as a performance measure. It asserts it's not chasing figures. That is arguable. It's figures and data which form the basis of its reporting to District Councils.
In fairness, the FEHD is between a rock and a hard place. Every interaction is fraught with emotion and claims of bias. At the same time, the public and District Councils demand action. The job is not popular because it brings direct conflict with the public.
Community consensus through consultation at District Councils is the norm sought before enforcement action starts. In Tsuen Wan, a year-long debate rumbled on over the shop-front occupation of pavements. Conflicting opinions held enforcement action in check until a sort of agreement emerged. Officials and Councillors settled on an approach. Then FEHD finally acted after many warnings and much cajoling of the shop-keepers.
In the process, I heard lame claims from FEHD bosses of triad involvement, with threats made to their officers. On investigation, this proved embellished. Nonetheless, Police officers hovered in the background during operations as tacit support.
Underlying the challenges of keeping our streets clear is culture and society's attitude. This is not unique to the work of the FEHD. Individual FEHD officers may feel constrained by procedures and a bureaucratic system. Layered atop that are anti-corruption strategies that shape their approach. Front-line staff, even when sympathetic and recognising the triviality of a case, feel compelled to act. And at the end of the day, the fairness of the action is subjective.
Moreover, such is the extent of obstruction of public space in Hong Kong, enforcement action won’t address the issue. The same applies to illegal parking.
Without public support, like all enforcement agencies, the FEHD loses its legitimacy. In turn, that brings them into greater contention with the society they serve. Reading the online reaction to the latest case, you can see the public has little sympathy for the FEHD. Yet, the same public demand unobstructed pavements.
Unfortunately, the FEHD creates the impression of going for the painless options. Elderly waste collectors; rather than stroppy garage owners occupying pavements to repair cars. This case suggests some form of justice is at play. The fine is dropped, and I believe everyone welcomes that. Nonetheless, it a shame that the lady had to suffer awaiting a decision.
In the end, the FEHD will continue to face a thankless task. Perhaps they could help themselves by less focus on the venerable. Take on the garages and shop-front occupation of pavements. We’d all welcome some action there. There’d be wisdom in that approach.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.