Common Sense Takes a Holiday

The week the 5-month consultation on electoral reforms ended, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam talked to a meeting of joint Rotary clubs and shared with the audience some personal reflections on the process. It was a rather well attended meeting. I was there; and I was asked afterwards, probably in my capacity as a past governor of the Rotary District whether Rotary should be involved in such political activities. On another occasion, I was asked by a rather well read HKU alumnus why both the Hong Kong Government and the PRC Government took such a tough stance on the Occupy Central movement.

The two questions and the manner in which they were presented to me highlight a growing and disturbing trend in Hong Kong life. I have always lived in Hong Kong and it has never crossed my mind not to take Hong Kong as my home. In the two to three decades after my graduation and in the lead up to 1997 in particular, I witnessed many of my friends and all the family members of Rosita leaving the place, but I have never ever thought of emigrating anywhere, not even once. It could be that I was simply darn lazy or naïve; but I have taken the position of staying in Hong Kong which has always been, is now and ever shall be my home; which was why it was a piece of cake when, as part of my job, I was required to promote Hong Kong or to attract foreign direct investment. I have always believed in the resilience of the place and the people therein, and I am a strong believer of the Hong Kong Advantage. People, young people in particular, were known to be fast learners, highly flexible and adaptive, hard working, law abiding and, most important of all, full of common sense. But today, it seems that all these much valued qualities belonged only to the rare few, or the endangered species. Sometimes I feel that people would no longer value rational thinking or rational behavior anymore; and there seems to be no place for common sense.

On the first question, Rotary has survived for more than a century, even though membership has not significantly grown in the last two or three decades. Yes, I recall that in the late Eighties, our leaders in the District used to speak in very strong terms that our clubs must seek to remain apolitical and, to some extent, self effacing. Thus, we would not publicly voice support for politicians and we would not seek publicity. Indeed, in those days, any member whose name appeared in the newspaper would be required to pay the red box; and we would very rarely ask senior officials to address our meetings. I recall a member in the PR business would pay a lump sum to charity at the beginning of the Rotary year as insurance payments for his inevitable exposure in the media. What idiosyncrasies this would be seen today! Well, time has changed indeed; and the world has changed many times since. Rotary International has changed too. Indeed, it has to, or risk being marginalized. Politics has also changed beyond recognition. Nowhere in the world can anyone avoid politics. Politics is not necessarily a dirty word anymore along with other words that could not be used in public or before a mixed gender audience. Politics is no longer restricted to political parties or necessarily adversarial. Politics is now inevitable where there is a community or a congregation of people who need to be together for functional or whatever reasons, whether voluntarily or otherwise. There is politics in classrooms, in social clubs, within a clan and even in the family or in a household. There is politics between husband and wife and one ignores that at one’s perils.

The case of Carrie Lam talking to a large audience of Rotarians at a lunch meeting ought to be seen in context. Certainly the Chief Secretary holds a political office, and a rather important one, but she is also a principal official of the HKSAR and has the responsibility as well as the motivation to maintain and uphold good and effective administration not only within the Government, but also within Hong Kong as a whole. Rotary is not a political organization indeed, but Rotarians are more than concerned with good and proper administration and many Rotarians are instrumental in the maintenance of good order and civility and of effective governance in the community. There is no conflict between the two; and indeed, many Rotarians love the opportunity to share with a top government official the latest thinking and development on electoral reforms. After all, to the level headed and sound minded, getting better informed can only be good.

That brings me to the second question. These days, it seems that some people take pride in being uninformed, if not ignorant. Rarely would employees take ownership of the problems they face; or speak up in the face of outright absurdity or even stupidity. They are very good at following rules and regulations to the letter. They would follow precedents as far as possible and in the process are experts at creating problems rather than solving them. Thus, it is common sense that one should not break the law. Any unlawful act or behavior used to be frowned upon and people would not waste time to discuss for example whether it would be lawful to rob a bank. It is therefore mind boggling to have people still championing for Occupy Central even after the Government and government officials had clearly and unequivocally stated that such behavior would be illegal and unlawful. What is even more intriguing is that a high profile Cardinal in Hong Kong has seen it fit to suggest that Occupy Central is an option and hence it would be OK to be sympathetic with the organizers of the movement.

Once again, politics and electoral reforms are inevitably and inextricably linked. Democracy is more a state of mind than the goal for a community. The road to democracy is fraught with problems and pitfalls; and as a start no two persons can have full and complete agreement on what democracy is. The object of electoral reforms is to improve public governance and accountability, which in turn would benefit the community as a whole and the individuals in particular, in the belief that a general consensus on the way forward would relieve the population of the agony, acrimony and frustration unleashed in the process, the energies hence saved or regained can then be applied on social and economic development for the betterment of Hong Kong and the advantage to the individuals.

Occupy Central seeks to rally 100,000 people to amass in Central, in the hope that such a move, if successful, would block traffic, create chaos and put business to a grinding halt. My simple mind and morality tells me that such acts are blatantly unlawful and illegal: such acts are, without a shred of doubt, calculated to subvert the peace and good order of society and should not be encouraged or condoned under any situation. This is common sense, by my definition.

But common sense now seems to be rare commodity. In a society where individuals respect the views of each other and where everyone enjoys freedom of speech and other basic freedoms, common sense does not need to be defined. Everyone knows what to expect of each other, and not even an average commoner, including the rude and uneducated, would cross the line. While I do not agree with the views of those who are on the side of Occupy Central, I have no problem discussing their views level-headedly and in a gentlemanly manner. A civil society welcomes freedom of expression and freedom of speech, as long as there is an understanding that we are all working for the common good. Now, we see people questioning Common Sense; and it appears that people no longer value rational thinking or rational behavior. Instead, people would take to the streets, organize mass rallies, or stage protests under any guise. Maybe Common Sense has taken a holiday.

Today is Dragon Boat Festival and it is rather hot outside. I wish everyone who needs some rest would get one; and I hope to talk to you again soon.

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