Ethics 2.0: Time for a rethink about how we structure public life

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In the game of elevating public discourse, there needs to be a trust on all sides. Ofttimes that trust is tested.


Trust has two major elements: Character and competency. When one fails, both come into question as entire conduct comes under scrutiny.

In Hong Kong of late, trust has been called into question time and time again. There is a slew of investigations proceeding against professionals, politicians, police, medical professionals, and even humble mariners. Lack of trust among various investigative bodies means multiple investigations for every alleged offence. Open ended powers for politicians, like the Powers and Privileges Committee, are being used more and more often. It can be far more effective to score political points rooting out the misdeeds of others rather than the painstaking work of building slow progress on mundane issues of quiet, less glamourous, importance. However, politicians cannot abdicate their responsibilities when serious allegations arise and so call the accused to the bar.

The range and breadth of conflicts of interest and the barrage of competing investigations they produce suggest Hong Kong needs a rethink about how it conducts, monitors and sanctions its public sphere.


A good beginning

The ICAC has become a global model imitated by many jurisdictions around the globe. Our first Chief Executive, for all his flaws and failings, to his immense credit, managed to put his family business aside and avoid conflict of interest with his company during his term. Hong Kong has a good track record, but it is not enough. Keeping a city-state clean requires vigilance, prudence and restraint, not in excess, but in proper measure.

It seems more difficult to keep clean now. Hong Kong needs to look not only into individual cases, but also its major, interrelated institutions. We must consider an overhaul in how we manage potential conflict of interest, reporting lines for regular and investigative officials, and our relationships with outside jurisdictions.

Hong Kong is not the place it was 40 years ago during the big clean up of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Then, as now, Hong Kong was dealing with a major shift in everything – demographics, industrial base, an opening China, an ending Cold War, a resurgent South East Asia and a growing awareness of an approaching 1997.


Time to step up again

Likewise, Hong Kong is changing now. Demographic change, the dramatic expansion of the work-welfare state, engagement with a China struggling with their own corruption issues, a financial world in flux and more. Our politics have changed even since their last redesign in 1997 when being a Legislator was considered a part-time job. Today, it is hard to see how the demands of senior officialdom can be managed alongside responsibilities to outside ventures.

The Barry Cheung case, like the Timothy Tong case, has shaken our faith in our institutions. Reactive, ad hoc, ad naseaum investigations cannot be the answer. Some of these cases may turn out to be cases of overreach, hubris, administrative failings or simply dumb “how did I do that?” mistakes. Or they could legitimately be black-hearted deeds, crimes of passion, greed or pride.

Either way, we have enough examples now to ask how we need to upgrade our political system. This will be no easy task as those with ad hoc power will be loathe to give it up. Anyone entrusted with new powers will need another watchdog on them and so on and so on. Breakdown in trust among groups suggest that a proposal from one camp may be viewed with suspicion from another.

It may be time to turn our eye abroad. Imported whole-scale solutions, like the almost forgotten Harvard Report on Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority (circa 1999), lack the needed political backing to become a reality. Our solutions must be of the people of Hong Kong. But there are those who imitated our success and have built on it. We should look to others, to learn what we can, to see what could work here.


We can and we must

There will likely be no end to the many investigative eruptions, institutional and ad hoc, that seem to be enveloping out city. However, it is incumbent on our political parties to begin the process of composing platforms to engineer Ethics 2.0 for Hong Kong. While the day to day of investigation and politicking is urgent and exciting, the redesign is vital and possibly painful. But it must be done.

We have made great strides in the past to become world leaders in ethics and public governance. As our city changes tack for a new future, we must do so again. Rules must be rewritten, institutions formed and reformed, and a common public understanding of righteous behaviour sought. Harbour Times has no doubt the people of Hong Kong, and you – the political leadership – are equal to this task. Your hearts are resolute, true and strong. The people are equal to the task. Hong Kong, with your commitment, will lead again.

Harbour Times launched to some small fanfare on May 10th and hopefully made some friends. We certainly had a warm response from some members of the political community and appreciated the breakfast meetings and congratulatory phone calls that resulted. Things even got a little ‘Hot’ according to HK Magazine. We hope to build on our mission of ‘elevating political discourse’, recognising that there will be challenges.

It was in some respects a tough two weeks since then. While some old foes buried the hatchet just in time for our first cover story (on the ATD), things became a little more fractious after that. Discord over the filibuster, concerns about bias in policing and finally, high profile resignations dominated the news.

Our lead story this week is one full of conflict – government vs business, business vs community, lawmakers vs law-breakers and even government department vs department. The Ombudsman stepped into an ancient quagmire – Outdoor Seating Accommodation permits and violations – seemingly to play the bad cop, urging a crackdown on illegal outdoor dining. But was their real aim to save alfresco seating by drawing attention to the worsening problem and forcing a solution? Read our analysis of a problem that has plagued Hong Kong for far too long and demands a solution now.

Solutions are what are needed. A bright light this week was the Secretary for the Environment KS Wong’s plan for waste reduction. It is an action plan that can be scrutinised, addressed, modified and acted on to address a real problem. Hopefully, the City of Commerce column from Asia’s leading plastics foe Doug Woodring has part of the solution. Is a bottle charging scheme part of the solution? Our contributor to Out of Pocket this week isn’t so sure.

Of course, smart practitioners know that getting people to do the right thing is often harder than knowing what is the right thing to do. The first step to building a coalition is knowing who your friends are. Daisy Chan, well-known to Hong Kong GRIPs (Government Relations Industry Professionals), has sage counsel on this topic in part 2 of Professional Confessional.

Media relations are key to public support. In Harbour Crossings, two off-the-record media pros offer some advice to our Chief Executive on choosing his next head of media – a key person for getting the public behind your initiatives.

Media and advertising people can make a difference. If anyone tells you otherwise, they haven’t seen NO – the Chilean film detailing the ad man and campaigners that ousted General Augusto Pinochet. The events recounted in that film show “2%” of the events that impacted on a people grasping for their freedom. The personal story of exile and redemption of the current Consul in Charge for Chile in Hong Kong, Mr. Mario Artaza, are in many ways the story of Chile. It is a powerful and moving story and worth reading Diplomat, Harbour Times’ sister publication, for that alone (starting on page 13).

So while Hong Kong may have experienced an eventful two weeks, astute readers and observers will find solutions and inspiration in this pages that help make Hong Kong a stronger place. We still need your smart and optimistic politics to make it happen.