20 July 2019
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said there is no question of the government or herself attaching less importance to the use of English. Photo: AFP
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said there is no question of the government or herself attaching less importance to the use of English. Photo: AFP

Apology accepted, Carrie Lam

I am neither fan nor foe of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but I accept her apology for refusing to answer a reporter’s question in English on Tuesday.

Not responding to questions in English – or Cantonese or Putonghua, for that matter –  is not a sin. I am sure she was only impatient, and certainly not incapable of speaking English. Remember, Lam was a head girl in high school and graduated with first-class honors at the University of Hong Kong.

Perhaps she was simply not in the mood. It is alright for the chief executive not to be always in a good mood, or perhaps even to be testy as she obviously was on Tuesday.

Would you blame a 61-year-old lady who is known to work from 7 in the morning to 11 in the evening seven days a week for feeling a bit irritated and grumpy at times? Of course, you wouldn’t.

Perhaps the housing issue is proving a big headache for her, and we do hope it won’t turn into her Achilles’ heel. Since serving as the first secretary of the Development Bureau, CE Lam has been wrestling with the problem for a decade now.

Her latest housing initiative, including the vacancy tax, in the second year of her administration has been derided for being too little, too late. 

And this came right after she had been summoned to Beijing by boss Han Zheng, who ordered her to handle the rising property market properly.

So that is perhaps part of the reason why she did not feel like talking in English, something that her boss might not understand.

On Tuesday, while fielding questions from media before her regular Executive Council meeting, Lam was asked again by a reporter from government broadcaster RTHK about land reclamation, although this time in English.

Showing some irritation, the chief executive indicated that it was a waste of time to answer in English the same question that had been asked and answered in Cantonese.

She said: “In future, we’d better arrange simultaneous interpretation for this media standup because I keep on repeating the answers … I have answered exactly the same question in Cantonese, so I’m going to repeat what I said in Cantonese.

“But in future, the director of information services may consider a better arrangement so that we don’t need to waste time.”

That momentary lapse into – shall we say – a less than tactful way of handling the situation has produced a storm, with some members of the public wondering whether there is a change in the bilingual policy when it comes to government communications.

In an attempt to calm the storm, the CE issued a late-night apology for the confusion that might have been created by her remarks, stressing that there is no question of the government or herself attaching less importance to the use of English.

To be sure, Lam was not the only senior government official who at times got tired of repeating an answer in English. John Tsang, whom she defeated in the chief executive race last year, had the same mistake.

In 2008, the then financial secretary held a press briefing to announce the measures the government was taking, including boosting liquidity in the banking sector, to battle the financial tsunami.

During the session, he turned down questions from English media, saying “I am not going to repeat that in English” and later “I don’t have a prepared transcript in English”.

Yours truly took a jab at the Ivy League-educated minister for turning down reporters’ questions in English in a city that prides itself on being an international financial center.

Guess what, I have been a most loyal listener of his radio show that teaches people about American English slang. 

So give Carrie Lam more time – and she will not forget the importance of speaking English for the rest of her term.

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EJ Insight writer

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