Published: 02:56, September 26, 2023 | Updated: 09:31, September 26, 2023
Public interest overrides all other concerns when it comes to policy
By Ho Lok-sang

Multiple sad stories that took place in Hong Kong in recent months underscore the importance of holding the public interest paramount.

Last week, two middle-aged brothers who were mentally disabled were found dead in their apartment, apparently starving following the hospitalization of their mother, who had been their primary carer, in May. 

It was reported that the household was not on the radar of the Social Welfare Department. Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun Yuk-han on Saturday expressed deep regret over the incident and said more will be done to improve support services. The department has commissioned a dedicated 24-hour hotline for carers, which will be launched later this year by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s quick response is commendable, but it is still not a proactive action to seek out the vulnerable to give them help. We need to face the fact that truly vulnerable people often will not seek help, in part because they don’t know where to find it, and in part because they just do not believe that seeking help will be of any use. There have been too many tragedies involving carers becoming stressed out and then killing their loved ones under their care.

On Sept 10, a workman was electrocuted in an industrial accident at the Hong Kong Science Park while he was connecting some solar panels to a power supply while it was raining. This came after a similar incident at a construction site near the airport on Aug 19. These accidents should never have happened. In principle, all electric-shock accidents are avoidable, given human knowledge about electricity. Someone must be taking chances.

On Sept 24, yet another tragedy occurred. Two men working underground on a site that is under the control of the MTR Corp and that is part of a tunnel serving the Airport Express were found dead. The pair had gone to work the previous day but failed to return home. Family members said that the men had been doing similar work for decades, but could not understand why no one was available on the ground to offer help when needed and no one was even aware of their disappearance.

Hong Kong is purportedly a world city. World cities must not take chances. Taking chances is not an entrepreneurial trait. Taking chances is trying to save costs and hoping that the terrible thing that may happen would not happen.

The fall of the giant LED screen at the concert in the Hong Kong Coliseum on July 28, 2022, that hit two dancers, including Mo Li, who suffered a serious spinal injury, is an example of taking chances, as was the Lamma Island ferryboat tragedy in 2012 that killed 39 and injured 92. In the former case, the organizers falsified the weight of the screen in order to allow the show to be on time. In the latter case, the Marine Department somehow had allowed the ferryboat to continue in service despite the absence of the watertight door to the steering gear compartment, which had played a part in the rapid sinking of Lamma IV after the collision. It is a mystery why in the circumstances the vessel was nevertheless considered compliant with safety standards.

I have written multiple times in this column about the high incidence of industrial accidents in Hong Kong. I would reiterate my proposal for a mandatory no-fault minimum fine for each fatality at HK$1 million ($128,000) that will be paid to the victim’s family with minimal delay. Establishing fault is time-consuming and uncertain. It is generally not possible to list out all the things that should be done. The no-fault provision would incentivize employers to find out all that they could do to avoid disaster. When fault is established, additional fines may be necessary, depending on the degree of negligence.

As a researcher on public policy, I would argue that protecting the public interest must be the paramount concern of all governments. To assess if a policy serves the public interest, we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and consider that if we did not have a fixed identity and instead could be anyone in the community, we would still support the policy. To say that the public interest is paramount means that considerations like privacy would be secondary. Some people may complain that closed-circuit TV cameras in public places may compromise privacy. Yet evidence shows that they significantly reduce crime. People feel safe from pickpockets and robbers. So people welcome such surveillance.

Today, public housing tenants are not permitted to own properties and must give up their units if they own properties. Yet according to current privacy laws, information collected by one branch of the government cannot be shared with other branches of the government. This, it is speculated, may be why Abby Choi’s father-in-law was able to own a luxury flat even though he had bought a Home Ownership Scheme unit using the Green Form applicant status.

Public interest must remain paramount. It is even above the law, in the sense that the law is there only to serve the public interest. If a law undermines the public interest, it must be a bad law and should be repealed. To pursue the public interest, the Social Welfare Department must be more forthcoming in seeking out vulnerable people and helping them.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.