29 February 2020
A vehicle sits partially submerged in floodwaters at a residential estate in Hong Kong after Typhoon Mangkhut. The city's leader, Carrie Lam, has faced some criticism over the post-storm arrangements. Photo: Bloomberg
A vehicle sits partially submerged in floodwaters at a residential estate in Hong Kong after Typhoon Mangkhut. The city's leader, Carrie Lam, has faced some criticism over the post-storm arrangements. Photo: Bloomberg

How not to respond to a typhoon

When natural disasters descend some leaders magnificently rise to the occasion but others visibly shrink. Lamentably Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam belongs to the class of shrinkers.

The problem with disasters is that they tend to highlight both the strengths and weakness of political leaders precisely because they are extreme events, and precisely because they throw up consequences beyond their control.

What’s needed in these circumstances is to be seen taking control of the situation, showing empathy for victims and where mistakes are made, acknowledging them.

In the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut Lam immediately went into what can only be described as Carrie-mode. This is a form of behavior she has been developing which combines arrogance, defensiveness and a total inability to relate to ordinary people.

The biggest cause of criticism over Lam’s response to the typhoon centers on her failure to avoid the post-storm chaos that ensued as employees tried to get to work in circumstances where the public transportation system had insufficient time to recover and was therefore painfully incapable of meeting demand.

Hindsight is not required to suggest that in this situation it would have been better for the government to have made last Monday a public holiday. Obviously essential services employees would have been called into work but then again this is routine on other public holidays.

It was a no brainer for Hong Kong’s largest employer, the government, to have given civil servants a day off but then again there is always the fear that things would work perfectly well without this small army of bureaucrats getting in the way and wags might suggest that a much longer break for civil servants would be in order.

What was Lam’s first response to this obvious mistake? As is her practice, she never admits to fault and on this occasion compounded the error with a reflex resort to bureaucratic muttering about the lack of a ‘legal basis’ for such action.

She then pulled the bureaucrats’ favorite rabbit out of the hat by declaring that action could not be taken without “assessment by all industries and (consideration of) the consequences.” Ah, yes, of course no decision too small to be ducked when there is an excuse for prevarication.

While peddling this line Lam was also, as is her way, micro-managing the response and declaring that she and she alone was responsible. Taking responsibility is a good thing but a failure to delegate and listen to subordinates is quite another thing. In the style of Mainland officials she issued statements saying that she had ‘instructed’ her officials to get things back to normal – presumably without this ‘instruction’ they would have left things as they were, or maybe not.

Then there’s this empathy thing which Lam finds so difficult. Instead of stepping out of her comfy office to see what was happening and possibly even talking to people affected by the typhoon, she proudly declared that she had looked at a lot of photos and videos.

As ever the Chief Executive does not seem to understand that leadership requires physical presence. Admittedly high officials can get in the way of emergency work but there is a time and place to get out there and be seen doing the job.

However, Lam has a problem with the people; she only likes meeting them in tightly controlled circumstances, where they are guaranteed to be ‘well behaved’ and not embarrass her. In the aftermath of a typhoon where considerable damage was inflicted there was always the possibility of victims being upset and angry. She has no idea how to deal with any of that.

No one expects political leaders to have supernatural powers that would avert natural disasters but there are minimal expectations of how to respond. Fortunately Lam inherited a system which is rather good at clearing up after typhoons and maintains the sort of building regulations that help avoid life threatening collapses of structures. This is why, thankfully, a major typhoon in Hong Kong is not the kind of life threatening event it is in the Philippines where Mangkhut proved fatal for a large number of victims.

In these circumstances the Chief Executive really did not need to do much but most certainly could have done better.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author