“The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish and his tastes do not change,” according to Bruno Fey, and this may be one reason why economic theory has few points of contact with the real world.

People are not rational and consistent. I will leave the question of selfishness for another day. We generally expect, though, that people should make an effort to be rational and consistent, particularly when they are in positions which involve making decisions for the rest of us.

But this is not what we get. Consider the matter of violence. We all disapprove of violence. We also all recognise that violence comes on a scale, with varying degrees of seriousness, depending mainly on the effect on the victim but also taking other circumstances into account.

So we might have at one end of the scale a pat on the back which would in other circumstances qualify as a sign of affection, and at the other — well take your pick — public executions by hanging, drawing and quartering, perhaps.

Where on this scale might we place the mischief of Mr Ted Hui who, irked by the presence in Legco’s backstage areas of officials apparently photographing the scene-shifting on mobile phones, grabbed a phone from one of the snoopers.

Taking advantage of the snooper’s female gender he retired to the nearest gents’ latrine to – or so one assumes – have a quick look at the “gallery” section and see if he was one of the unwilling stars of it.

We can I think infer that the violence part of this was quite low down the scale. Our prosecutors, ever anxious to add another pro-dem scalp to their trophy cabinet, have settled for “common assault” for the snatching part. The proceedings in the toilet qualify for that much-loved legal blunderbuss, “accessing a computer with dishonest intent.”

It was suggested at the time that the victim was in tears. I find this difficult to believe, though I realise that digital natives (or young people as we used to call them) have an affection for, if not an addiction to, their mobile phones which is difficult to understand for those of us who first met phones when they were large pieces of black Bakelite with a round dial and a wire going into the wall.

Perhaps she jumped to the conclusion that Mr Hui’s trip to the toilet would end with him dropping the offending phone in a place from which recovery would be unpleasant, if not impossible.

Perhaps the phone, which was on official business, was an official phone, whose loss would entail extensive form-filling and recriminations. Anyway I think we can all agree that it was naughty of Mr Hui to cause a lady such distress, whatever the legal status (still to be determined in court) of his actions. But as a piece of violence it hardly registers on the Mayhem Meter.

The government’s reaction, from the Chief Executive downwards, was that Mr Hui’s conduct was “barbaric”. This seems to be the most conspicuous local example of over-inflated rhetoric since the last time some sycophant said that C.Y. Leung would make a good Chief Executive.

If we are going to use “barbaric” for snatching a lady’s mobile phone, what will we have in reserve for occasions when the victim is killed and eaten?

What will we have in reserve if the victim is roughed up, has his nose rubbed along the pavement, is whisked off to the local police station and coerced into coughing up one of those “confessions” which we all take with a pinch of salt?

Well when it happens in Beijing, it seems, words rather fail us. The Chief Executive managed to “express regret”. The Secretary for Justice thought the actions of the policemen concerned were “very strange”. You what?

The whole point of having a lawyer as Secretary for Justice is that there are times then the government and the public need an authoritative statement of what the law is. Telling us that the actions of the police were “very strange” is like going to your doctor and being told that the mysterious growth on your neck is “very decorative”. That may be true but it is not what we want to know.

Actually I doubt if it is true that the police action was “very strange”. The mainland police are not like our police. Not yet. It is a commonplace there of reporting (along with demonstrating, protesting, worshiping in the wrong church and other controversial actions) that you may be beaten up by policemen.

One of my former colleagues had such a rough time covering a protest in Tienanmen Square that his back was permanently damaged. That’s the way it goes. Those who are taken into police stations commonly emerge on a stretcher, occasionally in a box.

Carrie Lam says she hopes that people will not expect the government to “use certain wording to show that it cares”. Not at all. We know the government doesn’t care. We would just like to see it pretending.

Of course senior officials do not have a monopoly on baffling inconsistency. Last week legislators were much excited by the news that tickets for the Flying White Elephant, or the Express Rail Link as we are supposed to call it, would come in two categories. Those for destinations served by trains starting in Hong Kong and finishing in that destination could be bought from the MTR. Those for other places on the network would have to be bought from the mainland rail system or an agent of it.

And (surprise!) the agent will add a small fee to the cost of the ticket. So legislators who happily swallowed the bill for the world’s most expensive railway were upset that travellers on this marvel might be ripped off a few bucks by the China Travel Service.

I am reminded of the passage in one of Parkinson’s books in which he points out that the building of a new power station will preoccupy the company board for five minutes, because few people present know enough about it to comment, while the construction of a bicycle shed will take an hour because everyone has an opinion.

The rail link is a hole down which billions of dollars have been poured and will continue to flow. Even in the original proposal it was never going to make money on a normal basis because it was never expected to pay its construction costs.

For book-keeping purposes the rail link is treated as if a choir of angels had descended on us and built the thing for nothing.

Honestly accounted for it will, as I have said before, have cost $100 billion. You no longer have to take my word for this. In the debate on the Great Ticket Robbery Mr Michael Tien, a rare railway-literate legislator, explained that “It’s just like buying the side dish for $100 billion and when you purchase the side dish you can’t book the main course at the same time.”

This does not sound to me like a recipe for a successful restaurant business.


Not in the club

My first job in journalism was as Sports Editor of a local weekly in North Lancashire. This was a sought-after way of starting because you got experience of editing and production, as well as reporting. Also it was effectively a part-time job, so you spent half the week doing the usual news stuff, thereby qualifying for a transfer to mainstream reporting later if you wanted it.

My Saturdays were devoted to the doings of the local football team, Morecambe FC, who are now clinging precariously to the bottom of Division Two but in those days were not in the league proper at all. If they were playing at home it was an easy half-day. If they were playing away I travelled with the team.

When I had been doing this for a year or two one of my female colleagues expressed a desire to try football reporting. Her father was a faithful supporter of Manchester United and she had seen many matches. Still, this was a daring ambition at the time. I spent five years as a full-time football person and in that time I only came across one lady football writer.

She wrote a couple of home games, which were received with great trepidation in the office but made it into print after lots of people had read them. The question then arose of an away match. This turned out to be a problem because the team coach did not carry ladies. Directors who wished to take their wives to away games had been firmly refused in the past.

An exception was made. In order to reduce the cultural shock my colleague, who already had short hair, dressed in a gender-neutral style: trainers, jeans, duffle coat. And so we arrived on a midweek evening at the ground of Blyth Spartans, who hang out somewhere near Newcastle.

Of course we arrived long before the kickoff. My routine was to obtain the latest version of the opposition’s team as soon as possible. The only other pre-match chore was to locate the bar. This was my contribution to the happiness of the team. It was considered faintly embarrassing for a professional athlete to emerge from the changing room and ask “Where is the bar?” My boys could ask “Where is our reporter?” and get the same directions.

The Spartans were aptly named. The usual palatial accommodation for directors and visitors was absent. They did, though, have a large wooden shed with a bar in it for the spectators generally. My colleague and I had just got past the door when we were intercepted by an elderly gentleman in a flat cap and a pronounced Geordie accent.

“You can’t go in here,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe he’s over 18.”

I gently pointed out that not only was he over 18, but also he was a she.

“You still can’t come in,” said the guardian of the door. “We don’t admit women either.”

And that, gentle reader, was the last time I was refused admission to a boozer until last week, when to the great amusement of many of my friends I was thrown out of the Hong Kong Club. Not physically, of course. Gentlemen do not struggle with doormen. My wife and I got as far as the lift and then were told to leave by a lad who in a less up-market milieu would be called the bouncer.

There were some ironies to this. I am the secretary of a society which has no premises of its own. We meet and hold events in various clubs of which our members are also members. Our Annual General Meeting is traditionally held in the Hong Kong Club.

Accordingly I had secretarially circulated the notice of meeting, agenda, minutes of last year, and a separate email warning that the Hong Kong Club was having one of its bursts of enthusiasm for its dress code, which outlaws denim and sports gear.

The man on the door decided that my wife’s shoes were trainers. This was nonsense but one can sympathise. Trainers are no longer always in white with the odd stripe or two. The choice of colour and materials, especially for ladies, is now so wide that almost any pair of flat shoes could be trainers.

I was less impressed by the announcement that my respectable pair of brown leather shoes, of the style which I think used to be called “loafers”, were “sailing shoes” and accordingly came under the prohibition on athletic footwear. So we went home.

Apparently I was not the only person to be subjected to a rather arbitrary assessment of his footwear, because a few days later I was told by a member of the Club that the policy had now changed. Guests with controversial feet or other sartorial deficiencies would no longer be refused admission. Instead the staff would take up the matter later with the member who had invited the guest concerned. Which is sensible.

Still, incidents of this kind leave me with a lingering nostalgia for the days when lamp-posts were decorated with hanged aristocrats. Readers who are tempted to take this remark literally will find the relevant song, with subtitles, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9VoRmjxvPs&pbjreload=10

In a modern city one cannot, I realise, expect to roam freely everywhere. We obey the promptings of MTR station staff, keep out of electricity sub-stations, stop for red lights and so on. Private property is private. But there is something uniquely irritating about restrictions which appear to be designed to preserve rich people from contact with the poor.

Unfortunately Hong Kong is addicted to this sort of thing. When I first came here Lane Crawford’s, which was then in Central, still had a sign saying “No slippers”, for which there was no conceivable practical justification. It was just a way of saying “no admission to people wearing cheap shoes”.

Periodically we have stories about signs, discovered by some new arrival who is not yet used to this sort of thing, excluding domestic helpers from part or all of some members’ club. Members can bring in their families, their friends, their business contacts, but not their home help. Some of the more luxurious estates carry social apartheid to its logical conclusion and have separate lifts for helpers.

Hong Kong Land no doubt wishes to forget that it once proposed that Filipinos should be banned from Central on Sundays because they were harming the trade of the luxurious shops in whose vicinity they picnicked.

Well I suppose if a group of people wish to get together and jointly run a legal society to which entrance is selective there can be no objection in principle, though clubs which exclude women are having a hard time of it these days.

What puzzles me is why so many exclusive clubs, whose members must be supposed to be comfortably off because membership is outrageously expensive, are cosseted by our government. They receive a massive subsidy in the form of exemption from the need to pay a market price for the land on which they sit.

The currently notable example of this is the Hong Kong Golf Club. Indeed the government has got as far as to include paving over a golf course or two in its list of possible solutions to the land shortage. Other equally exclusive and land-hungry organisations have escaped mention.

Do we need six golf courses is a good question. Do we need two racecourses is a better one. Perish the thought that we should move the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, but is that huge open-air car park a sensible use of a piece of Causeway Bay?

A government with guts might also question the requirements of the PLA, which appears to have little use for its extensive holdings in Hong Kong. The barracks in the urban area are all overlooked, and all notoriously empty most of the time except for the small squad which mounts a 24-hour guard on the gate.

But I digress. The problem is that we are asked to believe the government is a cuddly caring organisation devoted to comforting the afflicted. Yet while claiming it cannot afford the usual ways of doing this, which come under the general heading of social security, it does not even bother to collect a real rent from plutocrats who want space to play expensive games.

So we do not believe it. And then our leaders complain that we do not love them.










Goodness so much ethical advice! One might think, at the risk of giving some offence, that the head of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong was channelling the Dalai Lama.

Our Legislative Council, said Mr Wang Zhimin in a visit to the chamber, should cherish rationality, togetherness and patriotism as “core values”. Mr Wang also opined that all Hongkongers treasured stability and harmony.

One item missing from Mr Wang’s lexicon of praiseworthy values: truthfulness. This is just as well, because he seems to have some problems in the area of this item.

Earlier in the week he achieved territory-wide headlines with the observation that “Hong Kong is the only place in the world without national security legislation.” The obsequious English-language media termed this a “harsh comment”. But it is not a comment at all. It is a statement of fact, which can be investigated to see whether it is true or false.

This is easier if you separate it into two parts. The first part is the assertion that every place in the world outside Hong Kong has national security legislation.

This is the sort of assertion I have been warning would-be journalists about for years. Unless you have diligently researched the 300 or so places which have some sort of separate legal existence it is dangerous to use the word “every”. What this statement means, in the absence of said research, is that you cannot think of a place which does not have national security legislation. And that is not the same thing at all.

In the old pre-Google days the hazard attached to this sort of generalisation was that it might attract the attention of the academic who has made it his life work to study the incidence of national security legislation, and he would write to your newspaper pointing out the places which do not have it.

Having used the word “every” you are then left with no alternative to a humiliating apology. For this reason the word “most” is generally preferred.

Of course in these wired days people who are sceptical about wild generalisations do not have to wait for a learned scholar to pour cold water on them. Is there really no place without national security legislation, I wondered? Only one is needed to demonstrate that Mr Wang was talking through his hat.

And after some thought about likely candidates I found one at the first attempt. The Isle of Man has a separate legal system of its own and also a searchable data base of its legislation. It has no national security legislation. This does not seem to be doing it any harm.

The second part of Mr Zhang’s error lies in the assertion that Hong Kong itself has no national security legislation. I have been battling this error for at least a decade and I thought a year or two ago that I was making progress, because some left-wingers started suggesting that people they disapproved of should be prosecuted for sedition.

Briefly Mr Wang will be less prone to embarrassing mis-statements if he asks a suitably qualified minion to study the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200) sections 6, 7 and 9-14, followed by the Official Secrets Ordinance (Cap 521).

If you compare the situation there revealed you find that of the items ordained by the notorious Basic Law Article 23 (laws … to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies) everything is already covered except for the last bit about foreign political organisations.

Restrictions on links to overseas bodies are certainly not something which everybody has except Hong Kong. On the contrary they are generally found only in countries which are authoritarian, paranoid or both, like Hungary, Poland, Singapore or… well, China.

This sort of thing might well be covered in a law to regulate political parties, but I fear it will be a long time before we see one of those. Chinese Communism is like Judaeo-Christian religions: you are required not only to believe in your God but to disbelieve in all the others. The Party is the Communist Party. Other parties are gatherings of misguided unbelievers and should not be sanctioned by law.

I am puzzled by Mr Wang’s problems with accurate descriptions of our legal situation. Surely before being posted to Hong Kong a senior official will be provided with a detailed briefing, which if not enough to ensure complete persuasion will at least fend off embarrassing errors?

And if not, perhaps a few words from existing members of the Liaison Office staff would not go amiss. They could, for example, advice Mr Qiao Xiaoyang that appeals to the sanctity of the Chinese Constitution do not go down too well here.

This is because Hong Kong people are familiar with the way in which the Constitution is observed and respected on the mainland. Article 35, for example, says that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

Clearly a work of fiction.

To Japan last week for a Scottish dancing event (I realise that sounds a bit odd: another time) and a bit of tourism, which took me to the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, revered as the bringer of unity to Japan after a period of civil turbulence, and the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled the country for 250 years.

Actually there is some doubt about what is in this particular grave. Ieyasu was first buried somewhere else. According to legend his remains were moved to Nikko, where I may or may not have visited them, a year later. As this is supposed to have happened in 1617 it is difficult to check.

Suggestions that one or both of the graves should be opened for a peek at the contents have been rejected, so the doubts persist.

Never mind. Downhill from the grave and the cluster of very beautiful temples built round it by pious, or propagandistically-inclined, descendants, there is a museum. The museum shows movies, and one of them is a rather charming animation in the Japanese style on Ieyasu’s life.

This is probably intended for children. But it is the only offering with English sub-titles.

Of course such depictions involve some, shall we say airbrushing? You could level a similar objection to James Clavell’s “Shogun”, in which Ieyasu appears in a rather sympathetic form, thinly disguised under the name of Toranaga.

In reality, he lived in violent and treacherous times, and was not most people’s idea of a dream son-in-law. According to his Wikipedia page he was “not very well liked or personally popular, but he was feared and he was respected for his leadership and his cunning.”

He claimed to have fought in 90 battles, which was perhaps an acceptable total for a long life in that era. As well as these stag slugfests the victims of his homicidal side included an alarming number of women and children, including his first wife and the 8-year-old heir of a rival. Well, times have changed.

Part of the museum’s biographical movie has the young Ieyasu asked by a picturesquely aged instructor (think Pai Mei in Kill Bill) which of three attributes a state could do without: abundant food, an army, or honour.

His answer to this question, “an army”, is correct. The second question is which of the three should be discarded next. His answer “honour”, because men cannot live without food, is wrong.

The aged instructor says that men with food but no honour are no better than pigs.

One may well doubt whether this story, even if it came from Ieyasu himself in later life, has been embroidered. Only the sexist language is clearly 17th century.

But never mind the history. What left me gobsmacked was the notion that children now visiting museums should be encouraged with a straight face to take the view that honour is more important than wealth and power.

To Western eyes that seems a pleasing but antiquated idea.

I realise that there was no Golden Age in which European people were motivated only by matters of honour, or morality, or ethics. People respond to a variety of motives and, with few exceptions, greed is generally one of them.

But those of my compatriots who participated in the Second World War generally regarded this as a useful and meaningful experience, despite the sufferings and the loss of friends involved, not because it enriched the country – which it didn’t – or preserved the Empire – another disappointment – but because it was the right thing to do in the circumstances.

“The right thing to do”? How old-fashioned that sounds.

Our century suffers from what is known in Germany as the “Adam Smith problem”. This is shorthand for reading Smith’s famous “Wealth of Nations”, which celebrates the emergence of collective economic success from individual self-interest, without also reading the “Theory of Moral Sentiments” which explores the reasons why people do not in practice always behave selfishly.

We have of course come a long way in explaining moral behaviour since Adam Smith, who believed that the mechanism he described had been created by God to keep men on the strait and narrow path.

But his basic conclusion was right: people are honourable because they wish to be thought well of by their surrounding community, and hence, having internalised that community’s values, by themselves.

This rather simple idea explains many of our apparently intractable modern problems. Globalisation, for example, appears to be immoral precisely because it merges into one competing network many different ethical communities.

This produces a race to the bottom. People who are loyal to their workers are outcompeted by unscrupulous exporters of jobs. Mobile phones made in prosperous welfare-providing Finland, where workers have rights, cannot compete with those assembled by child slaves in China.

Toxic financial innovations, like leveraged management buy-outs or junk mortgage collections, are eagerly exported from places where they are barely acceptable to places where they were once not acceptable at all.

This is fostered by loyalty to economics. The Economist’s country reviews are carefully researched and exquisitely well written. But they rarely fail to come to the conclusion that the country concerned needs to free its labour markets and open its borders more to international trade.

Then there is the matter of Hong Kong budgets. These are based on the notion, assiduously propagated by the Chicago school of economics as the unlikely intellectual apologists for Ayn Rand, that the poor are poor because they are lazy, stupid or both.

This goes down well with the millionaires whose company and approval our senior civil servants find so congenial, because it implies that the rich are rich because they are industrious and intelligent.

So we get budgets which allocate more money to the rich – as “investment in the future” – in a variety of guises, and less to poverty alleviation: “sweeteners” which merely encourage the poor in their idleness and depravity.

We can also consider the tricky matter of relations between Hongkongers and China. This is not an economic problem. Hong Kong went from poverty to prosperity during the 40 years in which it got little help from the UK and none at all from China, which was busy exploring variations on lunacy with a Marxist flavour.

This has left us with a moral community incompatible with Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, which requires a quasi-religious belief in whatever the Party line currently may be.

This becomes starkly apparent in the current row over what Benny Tai may or may not have said at a conference in Taiwan. Prof Tai’s attackers say that he said “Hong Kong might consider independence.” Prof Tai’s defenders point out that this consideration was conditional on the achievement of a “democratic China”.

A democratic China is one of those interesting combinations of words, like “a tropical snowstorm” or “Hong Kong’s gold medallist in Olympic cross-country skiing”. We know roughly what it would look like but we expect to see it right after some South Korean genetic manipulator announces the creation of the first flying pig.

In other words, Prof Tai’s statement was about as hypothetical as a statement can be. In fact in a democratic China outright independence would not be particularly attractive. If you said, on the other hand, that if being part of China meant submission to a brutal despotism with no respect for the rule of law, Hong Kong might be attracted to independence, then that would be subversive.

But these distinctions are lost on local lefties, who are required to believe that Communism in China is not only admirable, but immortal.


Heartbreaking article the other week about examination stress. Apparently since the Diploma of Secondary Education came into full flowering in 2012 about 71 students in the relevant age group have eluded the examiners by killing themselves.

The writer, who still had fresh memories of passing the ordeal herself, thought this was shocking, and so do I.

It is always difficult to be sure of the motives of people who commit suicide, and there is a tendency for one reported case to inspire imitation. Even so, I remember the days when a toll of one or two suicides in an examination season was considered bad news. We are now, it seems, running a rate of something over ten a year.

The writer noted that the DSE, compared with other similar exercises, lacks continuous assessment. That is to say your final score depends entirely on the two weeks of frantic writing at the end of the course. There is no credit for school work done earlier.

She also noted that in Hong Kong the DSE was practically the only input used by universities in admissions decision-making. That, I can confirm, is certainly the case.

When four-year degrees arrived the committee of university heads decided (this was not a necessary feature of the new system) to abandon the old arrangement by which a course selected its own students. In future admission would be by faculty or school.

This means that anyone working on admissions is faced with a crowd of thousands from whom they have to pick a hundred or two. No detailed consideration is possible. The exam score is effectively all there is. The only other indicator of any interest is the student’s choice.

I remember several attempts to float scoring systems for extra-curricular activities, with bonus points ranging from – say – one for doing a Red Cross flag day up to ten for an Olympic medal. None of these came out as very convincing and I don’t think anyone is using one now.

There is also the familiar point that a university degree means less now than it did in the days when it was a rarity. The unfortunate consequence of this is that employers who really do not need people with a university degree still use it as a way of reducing their pool of applicants to a manageable size. If you haven’t got one your application is rejected out of hand.

This leads to the suspicion that – as one of Michael Moore’s interviewees puts it in “Bowling for Columbine” – if you don’t graduate you will die poor and lonely. Your future – not to mention your parents’ happiness – is at stake in the DSE and failure to meet expectations is a major personal catastrophe.

I do not, I must say, remember similar angst over the corresponding examinations through which I plodded many years ago. The writing was all done in two or three weeks – continuous assessment had not been invented – and we had to do the whole thing twice (it was called O and A Levels).

It may be that as a sort of supergeek for whom examinations came easily I missed symptoms of tension in my classmates. But there is not much privacy in a boarding school.

Then maybe we were let of the hook by the 11 plus. This was an exam (which was supposed to be a mere “IQ test”) taken at the end of primary education. It may have caused some stress, but most of us were too young to take it that seriously, and at least the stress did not coincide with teenage turmoil.

Those who took the exam were then allocated either to Grammar Schools (this outcome was familiarly described as “passed”) or to Secondary Modern Schools, which were noticeably less affluent and prestigious (“failed”). There was supposed to be a third category of Technical Schools for the NCOs of industry, but few of these actually appeared.

Everyone in my school had, by definition, “passed” the 11 plus. So we may subconsciously have thought that we already had Business Class tickets for the 747 of life. Getting into university was still very unusual. For most of us it was hoped for but not expected.

Perhaps, raised on the stories of our parents’ privations in World War Two, we set the bar for complaints a bit higher than it is set now. Employers, anyway, rarely insisted on a degree. Many professions which now require a degree, including the Law and journalism, still admitted most of their recruits fresh from school.

This absence of stress at school was more than compensated by a surplus at university. The one I attended offered an idyllic existence for three years. You then had a week of “Finals” which was rather reminiscent of that legendary Chinese examination in which candidates for the civil service were shut up in a room for a week and told to write down all they knew.

We had six hours of exams on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Sunday off, six hours on Monday and a last burst on Tuesday morning, after which there was an understandable tendency for the exhausted examinee to get resoundingly drunk.

An oddity I noticed on arrival was that all student rooms had brand new electric fires. This was because the university had decreed, after a spate of student suicides using gas, that all gas fires should be replaced with something less obviously lethal.  This was a success. Nobody killed him or herself while I was there. Some people continued to get special dispensation to take their Finals in the local mental hospital.

In small colleges there was constant vigilance. I remember the Dean of my place, seeing me sitting on the steps of a church (I was waiting for a friend) drew disturbing conclusions about my state of mind. He stopped his car in the middle of the street, ignored the ensuing hoots of outrage from other motorists and ran across to ask if I was alright.

At the University of London I heard of an odious arrangement in some of the more sought-after science programmes. They would admit about 20 per cent more students to the first year than they had places for in the laboratory subjects which started in the second. At the end of the first year the bottom 20 per cent in the pecking order were simply expelled. The results of this can be imagined.

One of my first attempts at journalism was a column in a student publication at the University of Lancaster drawing attention to two recent attempts at suicide (both, fortunately, half-hearted and unsuccessful) and wondering if exam stress could be reduced as this seemed to be a cause.

I then got a polite hand-written letter from the Vice Chancellor saying that he was willing to try anything, but reducing the significance of exams appeared to be not so much a way of reducing stress as a way of spreading it over a longer period.

We discussed the matter further and agreed that a student counselling service was a good idea. As I was the student union president at the time this proposal was sure of a favourable wind from several directions and materialised rather quickly. I do not know if it helped.

And this gets us back to where we started. Yes, the DSE is a stressful experience which some victims do not survive. But what would help?

I suppose there is no practical objection to spreading the exams over, say, four weeks instead of two. Would that reduce stress or spread it out?

Using continuous assessment of school work is a big ask because it puts teachers in a complicated situation. How much help is permissible; how much benevolent marking do their pastoral obligations require?

It seems also that while the student whose continuous assessment is successful can comfort himself with the thought that he enters the exam room with some money in the bank, as it were, the student who is less successful in term time may find the exam an even more onerous and frightening ordeal than if he was allowed to start from scratch.

Counselling can help, and a lot of people now offer it. I fear those who most need it are the least likely to ask.

The unlikely reform which I think would help is giving more thought to the idea that the entire student population should take the same exam. The consequence of this is a large group of candidates entering the examination room knowing that their chances of passing are minimal or non-existent.

A further large group in the same boat may not realise this until they see the actual questions. When I took the French Oral exam (a one-to-one chat with visiting examiner) we were admitted in alphabetical order. The first person out was besieged by an eager crowd asking what the examiner had wanted to talk about. Unfortunately this boy was not a strong candidate. “I don’t know,” he said, “she was talking in a foreign language.”

Seriously, though, the business of preparing people for an arbitrary and unnecessary encounter with failure is gratuitously cruel. There may be something in the idea that those who aspire to life’s glittering prizes should be willing to suck it up and tough it out on occasion.

The rest of us do not need to be prepared for a seat at the back of the bus. Life will provide us with as many examples of failure and rejection as a sane person needs. We do not need an extra dollop from the education system.

Thought-provoking piece the other day in what we Standard-bearers used to call The Other Newspaper. Headline (for which the writer is of course not responsible) seemed to be having trouble making its mind up. It said “Yes, it’s legal, but that doesn’t make it right: Hong Kong’s ‘can-do’ spirit has been twisted.”

This is interesting, indeed the first part of it is an important point which bears repetition any time: what is legal and what is right are two different things. Hong Kong’s can-do spirit, on the other hand, generally means overcoming obstacles by ingenuity and hard work. I am not sure how, or whether, that connects with doing whatever you like, a rather different matter.

Continuing to what we print dinosaurs used to call the second deck of the headline we were told that the author “Luisa Tam argues that merely following the law is not enough in our society – there is no legislation to guide us on how to be a Good Samaritan.”

Indeed there isn’t, and this is a problem. One of the more robust findings of experimental psychology is that, given a situation where help is needed but other people are also in a position to supply it, something between 60 and 75 per cent of us will leave the heavy lifting to the other people.

And this seems to be what Ms Tam wished to talk about. Indeed by the end of the piece it is what she is talking about: “For individuals, there is no law to guide people to be a Good Samaritan. The fact that we are not legally obligated to do good deeds or behave admirably towards others doesn’t mean we should stand idly by and do nothing when help is needed, or behave in such a way that benefits no one but ourselves.”

With which I hope many readers will agree. What puzzled me about the piece was what happened in between.

Pieces lamenting declining moral standards are a respectable form of journalism drawing on a long tradition which can be traced back through General Booth and Savonarola to the Elder Cato. During my lifetime I have seen many variations on this complaint, with moral decay attributed to American comics, rock and roll, sex, the pill, the decline of religion, the deplorable example set by politicians generally and Mrs Thatcher in particular, cheaper booze, easier divorce, outsourcing, investment bankers, video games, pagers, mobile phones, and Facebook, to name a few.

The success of this kind of writing depends on the specific examples given. Nobody is going to be interested in, or persuaded by, bare appeals to abstract principle. The horror story is the heart of the story.

Well we are offered two, and both of them seem to have problems. One concerns an employer who wanted to curtail his workers’ entitlement to compassionate leave in family crises. Well shame on him. As a sidelight on contemporary mores, though, it had two disadvantages: the employer was eventually talked out of it, and the whole incident took place 20 years ago.

This brings us to Ms Tam’s other example, in which she is a victim. Ms Tam apparently drives an electric car, and was outraged to find, in a public car park, that someone had parked an ordinary petrol-driven vehicle in one of the spaces fitted out with a charging gadget for chariots like hers.

Indeed Ms Tam sees “almost every day” charging stations occupied by non-electric vehicles and this is because they are often “non-reserved spaces”.

Which raises an interesting ethical/legal question, though perhaps not the one the writer intended. If a space is a non-reserved space, and spaces are in short supply, why should a driver seeking a space not park in it, whether his car is electric or not?

If someone can afford to spend half a million bucks on a car (I note without comment that journalism seems to have become more lucrative than it was when I was a full-time practitioner) then perhaps he or she should be expected to make arrangements for feeding it which do not involve depending on specialised spaces in public car parks.

Indeed I am a bit puzzled by this enthusiasm for putting power points in public car parks. The manufacturers of electric cars now maintain that the range of these creatures is comparable to that of their petrol-drinking counterparts. So why should they expect or need a quick top-up while the boss is doing the shopping?

We have never, after all, had petrol pumps in car parks. And I fancy that requests from drivers with retro tastes for hitching rails and horse-watering troughs will not be entertained.

Ms Tam says she “confronted a woman with a baby on the back seat of her car” who was occupying a charging space. The woman replied that it was not a reserved space. Ms Tam responded with “But it’s not very nice, is it?” Not very nice? Some of us would have been tempted to answer that in terms not fit for a baby’s ears.

The pity of it is that there are plenty of examples of morally questionable goings on in Hong Kong if you want to explore present values, without getting involved in the hardships of millionaires driving technically exotic cars.

Indeed the best thing in Ms Tam’s article was a link to an excellent piece, also by her, about the disgraceful treatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

There is a story by Hans Christian Anderson of a princess who established her royal status by being able to feel through a pile of mattresses that there was a pea on the bed. This is not recommended as an inspiration for journalism.







When Sarah Bernhardt came to London for the first time in 1879 she starred in a play called Medea, a bloodthirsty melodrama inspired by the story of a mythical Ancient Greek queen who, betrayed by her husband, killed his new wife and her own children by him.

Asked by a reporter what she thought of the performance a member of the audience said that it was “so unlike the home life of our own dear Queen!”

I had a rather similar reaction when, browsing the internet’s obscurer pastures, I came across Judge Frank Caprio. His Honour is the staple diet of an unusual television programme, sample here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORc0xXiJNd0  which follows his work as a rather humble judicial functionary, dealing mainly with minor traffic violations and occasional remands in custody.

There have been notoriously humane and gentle magistrates in Hong Kong, but the general trend runs more to the 17th century precedent which (recorded in the mixture of French and English which lawyers were affecting at the time) went like this: the prisoner “ject un Brickbat a le dit Justice que narrowly mist. & pur ceo immediately fuit Indictment drawn by Noy envers le prisoner, & son dexter manus ampute & fix al Gibbet sur que luy mesme immediately hange in presence de Court”.

Judges have the undisputed right to exercise considerable power in keeping order in their own courtrooms. The relevant offence is known as “contempt in the face of the court”. Offenders can be fined and jailed in a most summary manner. It is a feature of Hong Kong courtrooms that this power is exercised with very little thought to its potential drawbacks.

In a case last week, for example, the judge took exception to the fact that a member of the public in the accommodation reserved for such people was wearing a scarf with a political slogan on it, which the judge took as a violation of an earlier order from her that there should be no displaying of banners or slogans.

Reports of this incident have as usual been sketchy. I hope there was something missing in the report that had the hapless defendant, a 62-year-old local lady, trying to explain herself and being told that her guilt had already been decided, the only point at issue was the sentence.

Well the case was adjourned and so must be considered to be still active. So we should not consider its merits in detail, or at all.

Some general points arise, however. The first is that, as the UK Law Reform Commission put it, “if … the procedure by which the court seeks to impose its authority lacks the basic features of justice which apply to criminal proceedings, then it undermines rather than enhances the rule of law.”

Or as an English judge put it when invited to exercise these powers: “When a judge deals summarily with an alleged contempt he may at once be a victim of the contempt, a witness to it, the prosecutor who decides that action is required and the judge who determines the matter in dispute and imposes punishment.”

Clearly this does not inspire a great deal of confidence. More seriously from the English legal point of view it is generally recognised that, as a recent commentator put it: “there are concerns that the summary enquiry procedure, although swift and robust, does not comply with the requirements of article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Article 6 is the one that concerns fair trials. It does not, of course, apply in Hong Kong. However the Bill of Rights Ordinance does, and it stipulates in language strikingly similar to that of the Convention that anyone accused of a crime should have the right:

  • to be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him;
  • to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing;
  • to be tried without undue delay;
  • to be tried in his presence, and to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing; to be informed, if he does not have legal assistance, of this right; and to have legal assistance assigned to him, in any case where the interests of justice so require, and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it.

In other words you have a right to a detailed explanation of the charge, time to think about it, and a lawyer, if necessary at the public expense, before the judge consigns you to the nearest dungeon.

Hong Kong judges might care to consider the relevant Practice Direction for English judges exercising their “great power”. They should:

  Tell the respondent of the possible penalty that the respondent faces;

  inform the respondent in detail, and preferably in writing, of the actions and behaviour of the respondent which have given rise to the committal application;

  if the judge considers that an apology would remove the need for the committal application, tell the respondent;

  have regard to the need for the respondent to be –

  • allowed a reasonable time for responding to the committal application, including, if necessary, preparing a defence;
  • made aware of the possible availability of criminal legal aid and how to contact the Legal Aid Agency;
  • given the opportunity, if unrepresented, to obtain legal advice;
  • if unable to understand English, allowed to make arrangements, seeking the court’s assistance if necessary, for an interpreter to attend the hearing; and
  • brought back before the court for the committal application to be heard within a reasonable time;

  allow the respondent an opportunity to –

  • apologise to the court;
  • explain the respondent’s actions and behaviour; and
  • if the contempt is proved, to address the court on the penalty to be imposed on the respondent; and

  where appropriate, nominate a suitable person to give the respondent the information.

It used to be a requirement that the judge considering a summary conviction of this kind should refer the matter to another judge who was not already involved in the case. Judges have more recently taken the view that this is not always necessary and may involve unnecessary delay. Still, where an adjournment is required anyway judges might consider a recent observation from the UK Court of Appeal:

“…the power to impose summary punishment for actions which one has oneself witnessed and is oneself the victim does appear to place the judge in the position of being witness, prosecutor and judge… In many cases where there has perforce to be a delay between the alleged contempt and the summary trial, it will be wise for the judge to refer the matter to one of her colleagues if for no other reason than to avoid the risk that this argument will be run.”

Having urged judges to be more circumspect in the use of their power to convict for contempt in the face of the court I must express some puzzlement at the apparent complacency over the matter of people taking pictures in court.

This has always been a notorious no-no for news purposes. The possibility of tourists taking pictures for their own amusement has not previously come up. This suggests that in the two recent cases in which “tourists” from the mainland were caught taking pictures of the jury and in one case uploading the results onto the internet, something more than mere curiosity was involved.

So it is disturbing that the perpetrators were released without penalty and without, apparently, any serious inquiry as to whether they were who they said they were, or were doing what they said they were doing.

We must all sympathise with the judge who thought a procession of celebrites appearing in the part of the public gallery reserved for Donald Tsang’s friends and family might influence the jury. The answer to this problem is to abandon the practice of reserving seats in the public gallery for the rich and famous. A seat for the defendant’s wife is reasonable; a court hearing is not a social occasion.

A jury may perhaps be influenced by a parade of harmless local bigwigs. Possibly not in the intended direction. It can surely be terrified by the discovery that pictures of members are being taken in circumstances which suggest that such pictures may end up in the files of the Secret Police of our northern neighbour.

Yet this does not seem to bother judges at all.