June 14, 2005

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Insulting Hong Kong's intelligence

Hong Kong's civil servants are outraged at the consultant chosen to review their pay, says the SCMP:

Civil servants say they have no confidence in the government's salary review after learning that it is being carried out by a consultancy that helped a business group lobby for a civil service pay cut two years ago. Unionists were infuriated to discover yesterday that the project to compare their pay levels with the private sector had been awarded to Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

The firm conducted a survey for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce in 2003, which found some civil servants' salaries exceeded those of private-sector counterparts by more than 200 per cent.

The union complaints is the first hint the Governmetn has found the right people for the job. But Hong Kong's civil servants are amongst the world's best, they will argue. They certainly get a lot of practice, says another SCMP article on the Hong Kong nanny state:

The announcement begins innocuously with a pleasant ditty before getting down to the nitty gritty. "Show your parents how much you care," the cheery voice says. "Take them to the dentist." No, it is not a hospital radio spot, nor is it an announcement in an orthodontist's waiting room. And it certainly isn't a joke. This odd snippet of neighbourly advice is, in fact, a public announcement broadcast across the state-run RTHK radio, slipped between an hourly news bulletin and the latest pop hits.

Instead of encouraging a flood of elderlies to the dentist, it caused widespread hilarity. "I guess the days of a good old bunch of flowers have gone," quipped radio DJ Phil Whelan, one of the station's presenters required by law to play such announcements of public interest (API) each hour.

The dentist API is among a multitude of announcements and notices stating what can seem blindingly obvious that have flourished in Hong Kong in recent years, baffling visitors and earning the city a reputation as a nannying state.

For a territory that claims to have the world's freest economy, Hong Kong's 6.9 million people live under a tyranny of petty rules and regulations, say critics. "They are in the rise, undoubtedly," says Chinese University sociologist Chan Kim-mun. "Residents tend to tune them out, but visitors certainly notice them."

From codes preventing schoolboys from having curly hair to TV ads telling them how to carry textbooks; from "no sitting" signs in malls to "no spitting" notices on ferries; and from warnings on entering manholes to laws against loud music at concerts, almost every aspect of life is covered by a regulation. Among RTHK's incongruous spots are those that offered advice on buying a licence for your pet whale shark and donating blood to make you look younger. "I once got a small reprimand for saying on air that I was embarrassed to be a broadcaster after playing a particularly moronic one of these," admits Whelan. "An apology did not pass my lips."

The proliferation of banal notices and warnings have left many feeling Hong Kong is giving its rival Singapore - whose laws against chewing gum, oral sex and leaving toilets unflushed earned it the nickname Singa-bore - a run for its money. The tendency to over-regulate appears to have grown out of the panic brought about by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003 - which killed 299 people here - produced a baffling array of contradictory warnings. "During Sars, there were two announcements that ran constantly in Hong Kong on TV," says commentator Nury Vittachi, who has written several books of observations on Hong Kong's mangled public signage. "One said 'Join hands to fight Sars' and the other said [to avoid transmitting disease] 'Don't shake people's hands - wave hello and good bye instead'.

"In other words, it was: Hold hands. Don't hold hands." Another pair of hygiene-promotional ads at the same time said "Wash vegetables under running water", while the next one said "Don't let taps run: save water".

The need for stringent social guidelines is contrary to the Confucian philosophy prevalent in China. Confucius taught that civilisations maintained order through understanding and education, not through laws and regulations. However, according to Chinese University's Chan, Hong Kong's obsession with rules has little to do with Chinese cultural beliefs and more to do with the territory's British colonial past. "It is partly a hangover from the days of British rule and British bureaucracy," Chan said. "Our legal system and bureaucratic system was handed to us by the British." A culture of overloaded regulation was also born of the city's status as a huge immigrant melting pot.

"Those signs are there to inform the foreigners - the immigrants," Chan adds. "This is a city of outsiders and the feeling has always been that they need to be educated in our ways of behaviour." According to Chan, most Hong Kongers simply ignore the signs. Mainland Chinese visitors, on the other hand, admire them. "China is a country of Draconian laws but they are not really enforced," says Chan. "When mainland Chinese see those signs and hear those announcements they imagine that the laws are upheld all the time."

With some 25 million tourists expected this year alone, the chances of Hong Kong's obsession with keeping visitors in order is unlikely to diminish soon, leaving RTHK's Whelan relishing future announcements. "Watch out for those all time classics: 'When walking, remember to put one foot in front of the other', 'When sleeping remember to close your eyes'," jokes Whelan.

Good old Nury, always ready to help out on the mangled English signs. And nice to blame the British for the trouble. I have previously noted such paternalistic notices on water bills as well as the APIs on TV.

The article didn't even mention the infamous "Take your breath away" campaign by Hong Kong Tourism during SARS. Or the security service that didn't realise Government House has been bugged. Not to mention Harbourfest. Or Cyberport. Or...I could go on. Naturally Hemlock covers this outrageous attempt to crimp our civil service's ability to earn vast amounts:

STROLLING ALONG Lower Albert Road, I find the knife-sharpening noise actually becoming louder. It is emanating from deep inside the Civil Service Bureau, which has had the uncharacteristic presence of mind to appoint Watson Wyatt to compare salaries in our bloated, overpaid, parasitic public sector with those in our clean-living, wealth-creating, self-reliant and parsimonious private one. The very mention of the consultant’s name sets civil service union leaders frothing at the mouth. It was Watson Wyatt who, in a 2003 survey for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, uncovered the enormity of the civil service’s over-remuneration. It was a time of pestilence and simmering popular rebellion in the Big Lychee, and the wimps of the General Chamber swept the shocking material under the carpet out of horror. But the basic truth was out – insulated from deflation, competition, market forces, outsourcing and accountability to taxpayers, members of the world’s most arrogant civil service were being paid 200 percent in excess of (that’s in excess of) private-sector counterparts.

The spoilt, bed-wetting brats of the civil service unions will shriek that Woodrow Wyatt are drug-addled, devil-worshipping, child-molesting goat-fellators, when all the world knows they are mind-numbingly tedious accountants and actuaries, devoid of personalities, who have been performing dull but worthy tasks for the Hong Kong Government for years. The tragedy is that Donald Tsang, the ultimate civil servant, will soon be in the kitchen, instructing his underlings to put the knives away. The dogs of bureaucracy need to be slit at the throat, hung up to bleed dry, eviscerated and butchered – but it won’t happen. By how much would our taxes fall if the Government sent 100,000 back-office and paper-shuffling jobs to Shenzhen or Wuhan? Or Urumqi? Meanwhile, overstaffed, overpaid functionaries in need of empires to build, markets to interfere in, and projects to squander my money on decide to start running the Hong Kong computer game industry.

Note the link to the original Watson Wyatt report.

Why doesn't the Hong Kong civil service do what their counterparts around the world do? Instead of fleecing the innocent taxpayer, allow their pay and conditions to be cut and instead be funded by those who most need their services. So the police could be funded by triads, lands department by property developers and so on. Some call that graft and corruption. I call it user pays. And it saves us all a fortune! Talk about win-win.

Are we going to get APIs telling us to be nice to our underpaid and overworked civil servants?

posted by Simon on 06.14.05 at 03:34 PM in the


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