"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
CY Leung, the former Chief Executive, was unpopular. Not least because of his alleged high-handed and arrogant manner. It's said he was unwilling to accept alternative views; he rebuked his critics, before dismissing them as marginal figures.
Then CY’s replacement Mrs Carrie Lam came forward. She took billing as a softer, more accommodating option. She would heal the wounds after the trauma of Occupy, with its polarisation of society. Careful Carrie, with her perfect manners, could mend the rift in society.
And yet, some insiders expressed caution. The Mrs Lam they knew could at times be brittle, demanding of staff, while intolerant if matters didn’t go her way. Especially when she perceived the media misrepresented government policy.
“She is testy, impatient and sometimes shuts down discussion” according to one insider.
In recent weeks, Mrs Lam boasted about her ability to work long hours without much sleep. In an attempt to polish her image, she spoke at length detailing her daily routine. Unfortunately, the detail suggested a lady unwilling to delegate, who is suffering possible fatigue.
She also caused much discomfort with her frequent references to the Catholic faith. Buddhists, Methodists and others appeared uncertain how to react. Her statements unsettled many. Especially as ardent Catholics are attempting to ban certain books. The question is how much her religion shapes policy? Many are uneasy if religion has any role. Further, Mrs Lam suffered collateral damage from the appointment of the new secretary for justice.
Then on 3rd July, Mrs Lam had an outburst that startled many. She lost her cool at a press conference. Asked the same question in Cantonese and then English, she responded. “It’s a waste of time responding in English.”
And with that, she opened a can of worms.
First, English is an official language in Hong Kong, and it enjoys that status under the Basic Law. Article 9 states “… English may be used as an official language…” The “may” makes it optional. Although officials have tended in the past to operate in both Chinese and English. That's a mark of their sophistication.
Second, Hong Kong asserts itself to be an international city. Officials cite the standard of spoken English as a reason for businesses to operate here. In recent years, concerned business leaders claimed that English standards were slipping. Many viewed this as undesirable if Hong Kong wishes to be competitive.
Thus officials speaking English encouraged kids by providing a role model. Unfortunately, in an inadvertent move, Mrs Lam has undermined that.
The government is scrambling to portray the incident as a “storm in a teacup”. It’s a misunderstanding is the official line. Yet, the damage is done. Moreover, Mrs Lam, in an odd move, gave instructions to her officials before the media. This amounted to “make better arrangements.” The public saw an irritable display, which stood in contrast to her usual self-control.
On the flip-side, media organisations are sensitive about their access to officials. This imbroglio played to their narrative that officials are difficult. Thus, she scored an own-goal.
The government is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Questions asked in English will get answered in English. Late on Tuesday evening, Mrs Lam came out with a statement apologising. No changes are being made, she informed us.
Credit is due for recognising she created a kerfuffle. Also, to be fair, we are blasé about the ability of officials to switch between languages. Mrs Lam is an accomplished orator in English, Cantonese and Putonghua. That’s no mean feat.
Moreover, and to be generous, this testy incident could be due to fatigue. She should be taking more rest. It's worth remember Mrs Lam broke down in 2012 while defending government policy on national education. That debate morphed to become highly charged, with reprehensible personal attacks on officials. Such is heat of Hong Kong politics.
Henceforth, we can expect vigilance by the media on officials using English. In that sense, Mrs Lam has done us a service. We’ve seen a drift away from English in official statements, both oral and written material. People's awareness is now higher; thus the government will need to up its game.
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.