Letter to Hong Kong – The Tin Shui Wai Syndrome

RTHK Radio3  2007-10-21

Reading the title of this year ’ s Policy Address – A New Direction for Hong Kong – what comes up on my mind is the famous line from Charles Dickens ’ s A Tale of Two Cities:

“ We were all going direct to Heaven; we were all going direct the other way ” .

In his policy blueprint for the next 5 years, the Chief Executive unveiled plans for 10 major infrastructure projects that would cost 250 billion dollars and create some 250,000 jobs. Mr Tsang also announced that standard salaries tax rate would be cut to 15% and corporate tax rate to 16.5%, which would cost the Treasury about 5 billion dollars each year. Concluding his 2-hour speech, the Chief Executive urged people from different social strata and age groups, and people of different political views to uphold the Hong Kong spirit – pragmatic, responsible and determined to get things done – to embark upon a new journey for a golden decade.

Ironically, just days after the Chief Executive ’ s pledge to lead Hong Kong to new heights, Tin Shui Wai, a city of sadness as some may call it, made the headline again. A 36-year-old woman tied up her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son and thrown them from a 24th floor flat in Tin Yiu Estate before leaping to her own death. Details of the tragedy are all too familiar: the woman had a history of mental illness, her husband a terminally ill cancer patient in Tuen Mun Hospital, and the family living on welfare.

Same questions were asked after yet another domestic violence: Why family tragedies have happened one after the other? Have we done enough for Tin Shui Wai and other impoverished districts? What else can be done to avert similar tragedies? And same answers were heard: the government will investigate how to deploy more people to strengthen the services to prevent tragedies; we will make better plans for providing community facilities in Tin Shui Wai; we will review the case system to enhance better co-ordination between Social Welfare Department, different non-government organisations and the police; and etc. etc.

What are the impacts of repeated family tragedies and similar public discourses on Hong Kong people and on Tin Shui Wai residents in particular? Will they be numbed? I was very saddened to hear a resident saying in a news story that, “ We have seen so many similar incidents in Tin Shui Wai. When something happens too often, we do not find it shocking anymore ” .

It is alarming if tragedies are taken to be normal. To neglect persons of poor and mean condition is, as Adam Smith rightly put it, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. It erodes our sense of common purpose and identity. It strains the social fabric of our society. If the Chief Executive and his government are serious about maintaining social harmony, Tin Shui Wai should have been given a far greater cause for concern.

While it is important to pour more resources to strengthen crisis intervention programmes in Tin Shui Wai and enhance better co-ordination among various welfare and government agencies, these remedial measures alone are not enough to prevent similar tragedies. What we should do is not only tackling the syndromes but more importantly the root causes of these tragedies.

It is well founded that family relationships are greatly affected by work and economic pressures. A religious group ’ s study revealed on the same day of the latest family tragedy in Tin Shui Wai finds that 62% of the respondents are under work pressure and spend less time to listen to their spouse ’ s opinion. Low income families are more prone to the problem as the breadwinners are more concerned about their jobs.

The government cannot just hope that the “ invisible hand ” of market ideology and economic growth will solve the problem without a suitable system of distribution. If there is no change in today ’ s socially unsustainable type of growth and current redistribution mechanisms, economic growth may prove to be not just a poor solution to family tragedy but an exacerbation of it.

It ’ s time to end despicable wages to ease grassroots ’ economic pressures by introducing a statutory minimum wage. The transport subsidy scheme that helps jobseekers or low-waged earners living in faraway districts should be expanded and made permanent. And top up the differences with an income support scheme when hardworking people struggle to make their ends meet.

It is also important to invest in our social capital. Working long hours is detrimental to our family and social lives. The government should legislate for standard working hours in order to strike for a better work-life balance. Community building and neighbourhood development projects should also be encouraged. A caring community and neighbourhood are the best cure to prevent family violence.

The Tin Shui Wai syndrome is a plague for our civic values and a disgrace for an affluent society like Hong Kong. I trust Hong Kong people, like majority of people in the civilised world, are compassionate and fair-minded. We hate the moral hypocrisy of poverty in a prosperous society and are determined to end it. The main obstacle to end the Tin Shui Wai syndrome is however a lack of heart and political will on the part of our government.

The new direction that our Chief Executive is leading is not heading towards the golden decade but the age of extremes. Extreme wealth go hand in hand with extreme poverty. Is this the Hong Kong we want? For me, definitely not. Let us all strive for real development that are sustainable and humane.