Speaking Up Against Injustice

Jared Diamond conveyed this well-argued statement in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel”: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environment, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

Perhaps it is also true that a person’s mentality and beliefs are shaped by his/her own life experiences, rather than by his/her race or class.

I can still remember how impressed I was when I heard a white Canadian co-worker at a company in Toronto make this rebellious remark: “I’m not paid enough to think – I am only a secretary!” For someone like me who had always been taught that it was natural for female workers to be submissive to bosses or superiors and to do whatever work they demanded, that remark totally changed my outlook on the boss-subordinate relationship.

Female workers at the time (we are talking about three decades ago) were often taken advantage of, in that they were made to do servile work like serving their bosses coffee, running their bosses’ personal errands and sometimes even shouldering executive responsibilities, in addition to handling normal secretarial work, while being only paid a dismal salary. It was normal for highly paid managerial staff to take the whole afternoon off to play golf (presumably with clients) while leaving their secretaries to the mundane task of manning the office. What was even worse was the bosses’ inconsiderate behavior and condescending attitude towards the female staff. It was a time of blatant gender discrimination in an unequal society, in Canada as well as in Hong Kong. (I know things have improved a great deal in corporate Canada since that time, but perhaps to a lesser extent with Hong Kong companies.)

A few weeks after voicing her opinion, that co-worker resigned from the company. On her last day, she heroically stomped into her boss’s room, lashed out at his overbearing and inconsiderate behavior towards her and other junior staff and slammed the door behind her when she came out.

The image of that scene has stuck in my mind ever since and she has remained one of my heroines (another one is Simone de Beauvoir). Her brave action helped to shape my belief that to fight injustice, the first thing one must do is to speak one’s mind against all odds. It was a valuable lesson that my schools had never taught me. In the times of my childhood, meekness was expected of the female gender.

Talking about injustice, there was one social phenomenon in the colonial days that particularly irked me. It was the unspoken rule that local Chinese were required to speak English when spoken to by British people. I felt that this was totally unjust. Why weren’t the British required to speak Cantonese, when they lived and worked in a basically Chinese society?

I debated on the issue with one of my British bosses then. He told me that it was in the Chinese’s own interests to be able to speak and write good English, as English was a commonly used international language. I agreed with him on this point, but I was still not convinced as to why the British didn’t bother to learn the language of the place they resided in. After all, they were the guests and we were the hosts. Shouldn’t they at least have the courtesy of speaking the language that their hosts spoke? I felt so strongly about this issue that I wrote a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post on this topic, arguing that breaking the language barrier depended as much on the British as on the Chinese. It got published, although I didn’t know if it had any impact or not.

Over the ensuing years, I have tried to stick to my principle of speaking my own mind whenever I detect gross injustice, but not as vigorously as I would have liked, not least because of livelihood realities. Still, I would like to think that I have done my part, as I firmly believe in what Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It’s immodest of me to regard myself as good, though….(smiley)