Civics in Hong Kong and Malaysia
Recently, Time magazine devoted one issue to covering the tenth anniversary of the British handing Hong Kong over to China. While reading, I stumbled on a roundtable dialogue Time conducted to investigate Hong Kong's past and future.
Hong Kong has quite a bit in common with Malaysia, being a former British colony and having always being ruled by a government ranging from dictatorial to authoritarian.
I was not too surprised by what I read in the dialogue. It was the usual talk of competitiveness, of the need for stronger institutions, for the rule of law, for better policymaking, for developing a common sense of identity. In short, the usual blah you would get from any group of non-governmental civil society organisations anywhere in the world.
However, what truly amazed and shocked me was the people making these statements. In Malaysia, the only people you can find saying things like these are those sidelined academics, some social activists, and a few opposition politicians.
In Hong Kong, of those at the roundtable, only one was an NGO member. Another was a former top civil servant/politician. Another was one of the Hong Kong's richest tycoons. Another was a prominent lawyer and former solicitor general. The final one was an editor from a mainland Chinese newspaper.
In Malaysia, these people would only be stoutly looking out for their own interests in their own petty sphere. The lawyer would drone on about the rule of law; the NGO member would talk about whatever her NGO is interested in; the businessmen would ferociously insist on protection for his business; the civil servant would defend the establishment, and so forth.
To a certain extent, this remains true for Hong Kong. However, what surprised me was the incredible commitment of all who spoke at the roundtable to strengthening the civil society of Hong Kong, building up democracy, remaining committed to a free market and the rule of law, and addressing the issue of a Cantonese versus Chinese identity.
What impresses me about Hong Kong is how they have built on the best of both worlds, East and West, to create a forward-looking society which is meritocratic, cosmopolitan and able to deal with a wide range of views. The nature of its society is such that they do not have closed-minded tycoons and civil servants as Malaysians have — instead Hong Kong is capable of holding a reasonable, civil and intellectual discussion on policies and principles which Malaysia could never hope to see.
One other thing that impressed me in the article is not directly relevant to Malaysia, but is worth noting — Hong Kong's incredible commitment to the true principles of the free market, which eschew pro-business policies. At the roundtable, the lawyer actually condemned the government's non-interventionist economic policies for resulting in a loss of business opportunities! I think Hong Kong is one of the few countries in the world where the government is pro-market enough to let businesses sink or swim by themselves.
Most frighteningly, the people of Hong Kong are moving forward. They are taking in migrants from all over the continent, and as Time points out, their cosmopolitanism is on the rise.
This dynamism means they will prove to be a formidable competitor in the future — and they are always on their toes. The roundtable closes with one participant stating Hong Kong must be willing to learn and adopt the best practices of countries like, ahem, Malaysia.
Hong Kong is unashamed to take the best of all the world has to offer. It does not spurn ideas, it does not spurn people. All it cares about whether those ideas are good, whether those people are good. That is what has nurtured its unique environment — and that is something Malaysia must do as well, if we do not want to fall even further behind in the region.