Outrage as Hong Kong Sticks by Manila Apology Deadline

In the middle of one of the worst environmental disasters in Philippine history, the Hong Kong government initially delivered a breathlessly wrongheaded decision to continue to demand an apology from President Benigno S. Aquino III over the botched three-year-old bus hijacking that took the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists in August of 2010.

The government’s belated decision to seek approval to inject an additional HK$40 million into the Disaster Relief Fund has gone some way to limiting the damage done by politicians in persisting with a demand like this in the middle of almost unimaginable suffering. Also, People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip, who tabled the bill in the Legislative Council earlier this month to ban Filipinos from working in the city, later said he would shelve the bill “temporarily” until rescue efforts in the country are stabilized.

Displaying astonishing tone-deafness, Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung, said of the sanctions: “We have been in contact with the Philippine government over the last couple of days and they have not raised the question of extending the deadline” under which the government in Manila must meet the demands of the families of the Hong Kong victims.

The storm that hit Leyte and Samar dwarfed the repetitive litany of floods, death, destruction and mayhem usually visited on the Philippines during the typhoon season. Haiyan’s storm surge, almost two storeys high, whipped up and accelerated by 315 km/hour gusts, was one of the strongest tropical cyclones in history. It took 2,500 lives in one sustained fury, leaving little standing across the islands of Cebu, Leyte, Samar, Panay and Boracay.

The rest of the world rushed to help the survivors. Usually a prompt and generous donor to Asian countries hit by natural disasters, Hong Kong looked uncharacteristically hesitant. Its leader and politicians seemed unwilling to respond. Meanwhile corporate Hong Kong mobilized relief aid, putting the administration to shame. HK’s domestic helpers donated some of their meager wages at a relief center in a local church.

For reasons that are unclear, Hong Kong’s media, including the South China Morning Post, have been making almost daily demands to exact revenge on the Philippines. The Leung government may be using the Manila bus case as a diversion from his own low popularity, But in the light of the current disaster in the Philippines it displays an attitude of outrageous selfishness, hubris and insensitivity.

No other nation on earth maintains a travel alert warning to its citizens like the “Black Alert” slapped on the Philippines when Aquino did not apologize for the shooting of the Hong Kong tourists. That has festered for three years. Not even neighbor Malaysia, which suffered an armed invasion recently by agents of the descendant of the former Sultan of Sulu who claims historical rights to Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah has demanded an apology.

The bus tragedy is a highly populist issue for vote-hungry politicians. All the usual opportunists have climbed on this bandwagon. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chair of the New People’s Party and Executive Council member, contributed an amendment to scrap visa-free access to Filipinos.

CY Leung announced that The Philippines has until the end of November to make an apology or face retaliatory measures (as yet not spelled out). These measures are usually the prerogative of sovereign states. There is suspicion that Beijing may be using Hong Kong to apply pressure indirectly.

Domestic helpers denied right of abode, minimum wage There are 160,000 Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong households. They have the most intimate relationship with local families: they care for babies, school-going children and ageing grandparents, they wash, cook, feed, clean-up and walk the dog, freeing Hong Kong couples to earn a living to survive in one of the world’s most expensive, stressed-out cities. They are denied the statutory minimum wage in Hong Kong. They are a distinct underclass of exploited worker in Asia’s ‘World City’.

They are here as their country is unable to provide them jobs. They have to leave their own families behind – parents. siblings and children, to earn a meager wage in often pathetically sad conditions, many sleeping on kitchen floors.

When a domestic helper who had lived and worked in Hong Kong for over 20 years was denied permanent residency, she sought a review through the High Court in August 2011. All other workers up to then qualified routinely after seven years. The Court ruled in her favor.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), from its depths of paranoia, prejudice and barely disguised race-baiting, raised alarmist scenarios of the territory being flooded by half a million brown-skinned domestics from The Philippines if right of abode was granted. DAB legislator Starry Lee Wai-King droned on to the media that “We are only putting forward an estimate of the probable consequences to remind the government.”

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee upstaged that. She rushed to Beijing to urge a pre-emptive interpretation by the National Peoples Congress (NPC) Standing Committee. She declared on radio “It is better to seek the interpretation from the NPC before the government loses the case!” She knew that would be. The Hong Kong courts do not interpret the law selectively, on race.

In the end the Hong Kong government sought the ‘reinterpretation’ of the Court of Final Appeal judgment from the NPC and got it, perpetuating the destruction of the independence of the judicial system and getting its citizens used to mainland justice. That is something HK residents may come to rue down the road as feckless local ‘united front’ politicians continue to chip away at judicial independence with the support of Beijing.

Some sane voices in government have tabled the HK$40 million for the Legislative Council to debate and approve. Let’s hope it does so without more cheap domestic political points to be scored against a people already floored by overwhelming tragedy.