October 18, 2005

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Donald Tsang's bedroom eyes (Updated)

Hong Kong is beloved by libertarian groups around the world for its apparent flat tax structure and its apparent laissez-faire economy. While that's mostly fallacy, it helps Asia's World City score highly on various surveys, so it keeps the mutual appreciation society going. But there are some things Chief Executive Donald Tsang can't contemplate privatising. From the SCMP:

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has waded into the controversy over the age of consent for homosexuals, warning against what he called the "privatisation" of moral standards. Mr Tsang said that while he was a devout Catholic, his work had not clashed with his conscience during his 30 years in the civil service.

During a question-and-answer session yesterday on his policy address with more than 1,000 young people, Mr Tsang was asked whether he would defend moral standards in Hong Kong. The question was referring to an August High Court ruling which overturned a law that criminalised buggery for men under 21 on the grounds that it was discriminatory. "Everyone has moral values, especially over the issue of sexual discrimination," Mr Tsang said. "But there are things I feel strongly about. I believe the privatisation of morals has become a danger in society. Some people say `since what I do does not affect others and it has nothing to do with other people, why should I be constrained?' I have reservations about this because a moral is a value shared by the entire society.
Now that's a question. Is a moral a value shared by the entire society? I would contend the very opposite - morals are personal values. Societies often have morals in common (e.g. incest) but others they disagree about (e.g. abortion). Donald Tsang hit the nail on the head with his question - why should what happens behind closed doors between consenting people be anyone else's business? Clearly it shouldn't so long as it does not affect others. It's a basic principle of a free society. Legislating morality, which is effectively the opposite of its "privatisation", is a throwback to the bad old days when the government knew best. Morals are privatised because they are private.
Mr Tsang stressed that while he respected the court's ruling, it was also important to protect young people. "I think it is a bit too much if we allow people as young as 14 or 16 to have this; from a state of no choice to overturning the law."

The government has already filed an appeal against the High Court ruling.
The principle is simple. There should be no distinction in the age of consent between homo- and hetro-sexual sex. If you're old enough for one, you're old enough for the other. Instead of paying lip service to ideas of equality and anti-discrimination, Donald Tsang needs to stop preaching and start acting like a man of principles. Here's hoping Hong Kong's High Court agrees.

At least Mr Tsang finished on a funny note:

Mr Tsang also weighed into the controversy over claims Disneyland Hong Kong is exploiting workers. "I believe the [Disney] management are smart people and it will be improved if we give them time and room," he said.
From what I'm told, Disney people have had plenty of room at their park, even during the national day holiday week at the start of October.

Updated (10/18)

Jake van der Kamp from the SCMP on the same issue:

Donald should stick to his day job and stop trying to play God

"I believe the privatisation of morals has become a danger in society. Some people say `since what I do does not affect others and it has nothing to do with other people, why should I be constrained?' I have reservations about this because a moral is a value shared by the entire society."

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen
Chief Executive

How revealing. Mr Tsang is a political man but this was not a political observation. It was a religious one and it poses the question of how far it colours his thinking as our Chief Executive.

The context in which he made it was a question and answer session on Saturday with more than 1,000 young people following his policy address. He was specifically responding to a question about a judicial ruling that a law which criminalised buggery for men under 21 was discriminatory.

Let us leave the specific context aside, however, as Mr Tsang's response was a more general comment on manners and morals in society anyway. The difficulty I see is that he did make a crucial distinction he really ought to have made. Here is the question for him:

To what extent, sir, is a sin a crime?

If I deliberately mislead my wife about where I have been this afternoon, I tell a lie. If I deliberately mislead shareholders of a company of which I am director, I also tell a lie.

In the first instance, a government official may tell me that I have acted immorally but that is as far as his authority carries. In the second instance, he may again tell me I have acted immorally but in this case he may also legitimately bring charges against me in a court of law.

It comes down to a question of the limitations of government and enough has been written about it to fill any number of libraries. Over time, however, most societies have drawn a line between moral offences that endanger the social fabric and those that do not.

Telling a lie to my wife may endanger my marriage but society can carry on quite well if I do so. Telling a lie in a prospectus is fraud and carries a distinct risk to the social fabric. It may not be as great a risk as permitting murder or robbery but we would all find it much more difficult to deal with each other if we permitted fraud.

Both offences may be equally heinous sins to God, to put it in the classic terms of the Roman Catholic faith to which Mr Tsang subscribes, but government is not God and a sin is not necessarily a crime. By long established convention we make it a crime only if it threatens the social fabric.

I wonder if Mr Tsang is not at risk of blurring this distinction. He speaks as if private morals were something new. They are not. He recognises this himself when he goes to the confessional. He confesses to a priest, not to the commissioner of police. Are we to think this something new?

The sad fact is that public interference in matters of private morals has throughout history invariably led to horrendous religious wars or brutal oppressions.

Western societies in particular have learned through bitter experience that there is good reason to keep God and government in separate spheres. China may consider itself blessed that it rarely made this mistake.

It may be true, as Mr Tsang says, that moral values in any society are shared by that entire society. It may be equally true that government is common to that entire society. This does not, however, automatically mean that moral values are a government matter. Water is wet. So is oil. Is water therefore oil? I fail to see the crucial step of logic in his implied thinking here.

It is no more than implied, I know. He did not come right out and say that certain homosexual activity under the age of 21, leaving aside any question of whether it endangers the fabric of society, is morally repugnant and that he therefore has the right to bring the full weight of government against it.

It was a fairly strong implication, nonetheless, and I think it worth noting because there are many people in this town who are a little worried about the emphasis that Mr Tsang places on strong governance.

Just how far does he intend to carry it? Do his reservations about the "privatisation of morals" mean that he would like to adopt a Singapore-style Big Daddy government in which matters of personal and private conduct are subject to government scrutiny for common codes of moral rectitude?

Constrain yourself from constraining others in these matters, sir. My sins I shall take up with God. My crimes alone are your business.

posted by Simon on 10.18.05 at 07:22 AM in the Hong Kong category.


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Welcome back Simon.

One cannot privatise something which is always private.

The Honourable Donald Tsang can be anything but a man of principles. A believer of small government insists on occupying the Tamar site?

(You have picked up the Taishi debate, would you make a Weekly Linklet Special Edition?)

posted by: LfC on 10.17.05 at 01:32 PM [permalink]

Andrew J. Volstead (1860-1947), was the author of the American National Prohibition Enforcement Act (1919) which banned not just the sale but use of alcohol by human beings including blacks.

He died still firmly believing that "the law regulates morality" - the basis of Prohibition.

To moralise for a tick, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the Human Economy is essentially based on sex, drugs and slavery; so we get DTs from time to time.

posted by: gunlaw on 10.18.05 at 02:08 PM [permalink]

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