Sunday, July 12, 2009

Concept of Power II- Hong Kong vs Singapore/PRC , Democracy, Social Justice & National Identity

There are a series of happenings for the past weeks that provide an interesting material to make comparative study of the impact of democratic progress to welfare of the people.

I was only thinking of making democratic comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore at the beginning of the month after my participation of the Hong Kong 1 July protest march, but the unexpected 5 July racial/ethnic riot has added another perspective to my original script.

The Source of Power

I will start with the call for Universal Suffrage for the election of the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Many people may view such "hard political issue" difficult to relate to their daily lives but the Lehman Brothers Minibond issue has brought great contrast to possibility of how different a government under different degree of democratic progress would react to protect the interests of small investors versus big financially powerful corporations.

The fundamental reasoning for the call of Universal Suffrage is to transfer the power of appointment and empowerment from the few individuals (800 to be exact) to the general public. These 800 individuals are mostly screened and approved by the basic source of power, the Beijing government.

Thus, it would mean that anybody who wants to be elected to be the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, he will have to get the backing of the majority of these 800 Bejing appointed delegates. Most of them are rich, powerful and influential individuals in Hong Kong, representing the business community which includes the property developers, banking and finance sectors etc. Of course there are token representatives from the respective professional functional groups and unions but most of these people are perceived as appointed by or proxies of Beijing government.

With such a power structure, it is natural for those who are in the position of Chief Executive to please the big boss who appointed him in the very first place. At the very least, don't agitate or make the big boss angry. On the other hand, he must maintain cordial relationship with those 800 delegates who voted him as proxy to the Beijing Government. Many of them are tycoons or proxies of such rich and powerful tycoons representing their business and organizations' interests.

Thus in Hong Kong, it is not unusual to hear the people or newspapers complaining of "官商勾结", meaning collusion of the government and businessman in return of favors.

Buttered Side up

To illustrate how the structure of power affects the political behavior and decisions made by the Chief Executive, the simple request for Universal Suffrage by the Hong Kongers was flatly turned down by Donald Tsang recently in Legislative Council. His reasoning was that the Chinese People's Congress (which of course controlled and directed by the Beijing Government) has closed the case with a time table set for 2017 to implement the Universal Suffrage (instead of 2012). He is not going to go against the political will of the Beijing Government by bringing this up again to the Chinese leaders. Neither will he make any arrangement for those Legislative Council members (i.e. equivalent to our MPs) to visit Beijing to put up their views and requests of Universal Suffrage directly to the Chinese leadership.

It is obvious that Donald Tsang's main concern is to avoid agitating the Beijing Government even though there is strong voices on the ground to demand for Universal Suffrage in 2012. He is less interested in bring the voice of the Hong Kongers to Beijing. This is understandable as his reference of empowerment comes directly from Beijing Government itself.

Accountability of the administration is basically skewed towards the Beijing government who is the source of the power rather than the Hong Kongers. In any system that promotes appointment of key political leaders by the few powerful people, it would always be so.

The Pillars of Democracy & Minibond Saga.

Lucky for Hong Kong, there are two other three pillars of democracy to depend on. The very professional and independent judiciary, the freedom of press and the Legislative Council (i.e. parliament). Apart from that, there is a guarantee of freedom of expression by the layman via street protests.

The Lehman Brothers Minibond saga has demonstrated the importance of having these pillars of the democratic system. The Hong Kong Administration may not have the political will to settle the Minibond saga once and for all using its administrative powers, just like Singapore's MAS. This is basically because many of those in the 800 delegates that elect the next Chief Executive are well connected to the banking and finance sector. By right, the regulatory role should fall flat on the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) but eventually, this hot potato was kicked to the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC). HKMA is directly under the prevail of the HK administration of finance ministry while SFC is more or less an independent commission to oversee fair play in the financial market, mostly on the stock exchange and other financial derivative markets. It would be strange to have the SFC instead of the HKMA to oversea regulation over banks who mis-sold structured products. Anyway, this is another story.

SFC being an independent commission did an investigation into the whole matter and took a hard stand on the banks and financial institutions that mis-sold the structured products. It was not satisfied with the initial general settlement proposal (read by earlier posting, overall 60% to 70% compensation) made by the 16 banks and has in fact warned of sanctions on several financial institutions. Some financial institutions have eventually made FULL compensation to ALL of their clients while others are forced to make formal GENERAL SETTLEMENT PROPOSAL.

The Hong Kong Minibond victims are also helped by Pro-Democratic Legco members to force the Legislative Council to set up an independent Legco Committee of Inquiry. They were able to force the setup of such committee of Inquiry which is empowered with special Legco rights and power to call for witnesses mainly because the Hong Kongers have voted in slightly less than half of the Pro-Democratic Legco members as compared to the Pro-Beijing Legco members who are mainly elected via the Functional Group categories. If the composition of the Legco members are just like Singapore Parliament with only 2 or 3 opposition MPs, I really doubt that such Committee of Inquiry could be set up at all.

The Minibond saga in Hong Kong is coming close to GENERAL SETTLEMENT with FAIR compensation to be made to ALL investors mainly due to the power of the Democratic system that allows it to happen. Unlike the plight of Singapore's Minibond victims who are left to their own to fight for their rights and interests, the solid foundation of Hong Kong's democratic system has allowed Social Justice to prevail.

Forging An Identity

The Democratic progress and development in Hong Kong also allows the Hong Kong identity to be enhanced further. From the various postings on the Hong Kong protest march and 4 June memorial service, we an see that young Hong Kongers have been cultivated with a strong sense of social justice and political mindsets.

For an identity to be forged, there must be meaningful collective memories to start with. Collective memories can come in many forms like unique distinctive iconic buildings, common experiences and even food or culture. The unique peaceful protest march of tens of thousands of people without any incidents of violence is one of such amazing collective memories that one would have as a people.

Although Hong Kong is not a country but the Hong Kong identity is unique to many people. Hong Kongers feel that they have the responsibility to mold the future of Hong Kong instead of leaving it to the will and fancy of the Beijing Government. The spirit of "self-determination" is a strong molding factor of Hong Kong identity in this aspect.

As contrast to young Singaporeans who may hold "defeatist" mindset in wanting to initiate a change or molding the direction of their country, the young Hong Kongers, as young as secondary students, would take to the street to voice out their social-political views in the hope that they could maintain the political pressure on the government of the day to meet their demands.

There was a survey study of young Singaporeans and the result was that a substantial percentage of them would consider migration as the ultimate option for them in the future. This is alarming for a COUNTRY that has existed for more than 50 years. Singapore does not face famine, political instability nor any natural disasters. Why would young Singaporeans plan to leave their country? This is, in my view, a National Identity crisis.

Democracy, Social Justice & Fairness, Ethnic Harmony

The riot and unrest in China's Urumqi has raised alarms on racial or ethnic harmony. It is a timely case study for us to understand how such tragedy should be avoided or deal with if it has already happened. Favorism or discrimination will not solve racial and ethnic troubles.

A country needs a system of SOCIAL JUSTICE & FAIRNESS, INDEPENDENT JUDICIARY and DEMOCRACY to ensure that the leaders from top to bottom take heeds of the voices of different races and ethnic groups on the ground. As we can see in Hong Kong's case, minority races or even foreign maids are allowed to go for protests to voice their grievances. In fact, Hong Kong has a commission which looks into Equal Opportunity for all, particularly in employment.

Lessons to be Learned

The very first lesson to be learned is, the political structure and system MATTERS to ALL of us. This is shown by the differences in the way Hong Kong and Singapore government respond to the Minibond issue. While Hong Kong Minibond victims are heading towards possible GENERAL SETTLEMENT with a substantial compensation facilitated by the independent and separation of power along with democratic means to exert political pressures, Singapore Minibond victims are stuck with the only option of going for potentially expensive lawsuits. MAS has only taken the token step of putting a light slap on the wrist of banks who apparently have systematically mis-sold these high risks structured products.

The second lesson to be learned is that our National Identity could not be forged simply by singing nationalistic songs once every year during National Day. Engagements and participations of the young and old in the political discourse and democratic processes are of paramount importance in forging a collective memories, ownership and common identity among the population.

The third lesson is that Social Justice & Fairness could only be supported and sustained by a truly democratic system with high level of citizen activism on the ground. This will maintain the necessary checks and balances to ensure racial and ethnic harmony within.

On the other hand, in order to make our ruling party PAP to really grasp the reality of empowerment by the people, ideally ALL wards should be contested. Although we do not have a good model of democracy or even an ill-democratic system with controlled press and skewed electoral system, but at the very least there is still a way to make PAP MPs and ministers more accountable to the people. This is by means of making each and everyone of them to go through the process of REAL ELECTION rather than walk over.

If they are allowed to walk over lightly, they would think that what matters most is the PAP's SELECTION process, not voters' choice. In the end, they may end up singing more praises to the PAP leadership instead of voicing out the various concerns of the people who are supposed to be their source of power.

Last but not least, we need MORE ELECTED opposition MPs with FULL POWERS in parliament (instead of NCMPs). In my view, the proportionate representation system is the best system we could have to make sure that we have a parliament with a balanced representation of views over the wide population spectrum.

Goh Meng Seng

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