Carrie Lam must dare be a bold new leader if best yet to come

October 13, 2017 09:01
Chief Executive Carrie Lam is poised to find a new leadership style of compromising when necessary and confronting when needed. Photo: Bloomberg

Good leaders know how to listen to public opinion. But really good leaders know when to stop listening and start doing. Public opinion should only guide policy-making, not hinder it. Using public consultations to seek societal consensus is a fool's errand. There is no such thing as societal consensus in free societies. Bold leaders dare push ahead with policies they believe are in society’s best interest even when there is no public consensus.

Free societies such as Hong Kong thrive on people having not only different but also opposing views. When people are allowed to hold their own views, regardless of how misguided such views are, consensus becomes unattainable, especially in today's world where social media has a huge influence in shaping public opinion. Freedom of thought breeds conflict in public opinion, not consensus.

We see this in free societies. South Korea faces a real threat from its nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea, which is ruled by a brutal dictator who has implicitly threatened to fire missiles at Seoul. Surely, it is common sense for South Koreans to have full consensus in protecting themselves from such a threat. But instead of widespread consensus, the public is divided over having an American missile-defense system known as THADD in the country.

Japan faces a similar military threat from North Korea but instead of uniting to protect the nation, Japanese are divided over whether to amend the country’s pacifist constitution which has been in place since 1947. That division will decide how well Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who backs amending the pacifist constitution, does in upcoming elections. Britain is bitterly divided over Brexit. The American public is divided over US President Donald Trump’s policies and governing style.

Hong Kong is not a full democracy but its society is as free as societies in full democracies, some say even freer. This freedom allows the people to have polarized views on issues such as how much say Beijing should have in our affairs, the definition of democracy, Hong Kong independence, and allowing mainland officials at the West Kowloon express rail terminus.

Leaders such as Trump and Abe whose power to govern comes from the people through democratic elections can try to force through policies regardless of how unpopular these policies are because they have a mandate from the people. If their policies prove to be too unpopular, voters will throw them out at the next election.

Hong Kong’s leaders do not have such a people’s mandate won through democratic elections. That’s why they dare not put their own stamp on policies. Every policy, big or small, goes through lengthy public consultations which inevitably produce sharp divisions in public opinion. Our non-democratically elected government has become such a slave of public consultations that it hinders rather than enhances policy-making.

We all know increasing land supply to bring Hong Kong’s sky-high property prices back to levels ordinary people can afford is the biggest issue facing the government. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has made affordable housing her top priority and recently created a task force on land supply. The task force has promised to seek public consensus on how best to find new land.

By promising to engage the community every step of the way, the task force has already tied its hands. All its proposals will be met with angry opposition from one section or another of society. If it suggests using brownfield sites for housing, those using them now for their businesses will fight back fiercely. If it proposes harbor reclamation or using fringes of country parks, environmentalists will be up in arms. If it proposes using farmland, villagers will angrily oppose it.

We have already seen such opposition from vested interest groups during Leung Chun-ying’s five years as chief executive. That’s why nothing got done. Lam’s proposal, announced on Wednesday in her maiden policy speech, of starter homes for families who can’t afford homes in the private sector but don’t qualify for public or subsidized flats is a novel idea for Hong Kong.

But will she win wholesale public consensus for her idea? Of course not. Opinion polls show a majority of Hong Kong people favor the proposal but we are already hearing opposing voices from homeowners who say it will lower the value of their homes, from critics who say Lam is using taxpayers’ money to subsidize the upper middle class, and from those who say it’s not fair if starter homes are cheaper than Home Ownership Scheme flats.

Lam announced numerous new policy initiatives in her maiden policy speech, including housing, education, tax cuts for small businesses, and changes to the MPF system. She is bound to meet resistance from one quarter or another for her policy initiatives. The opposition in the Legislative Council will comb through her initiatives to find fault. I don’t blame opposition legislators for doing this. It is their job to oppose in the name of monitoring the government.

But my advice for Lam is to stand firm. Compromise where possible but she should dare hold her ground when principles are involved. Her predecessor Leung was so unpopular that he could not win public support even for policies that were good for society. But latest opinion polls show Lam’s popularity is rising. Her policy initiatives have found favor with the people.

She should not be afraid to go head to head with the opposition if she believes her policies are in the overall interest of society. Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen were weak chief executives in that they dared not confront the opposition. Leung was strong and hard-headed but sought confrontation when the opposition made clear it would not compromise on anything with him.

Lam is poised to find a new leadership style of compromising when necessary and confronting when needed. In deciding when to compromise and when to confront, she must be guided not by what the opposition wants but what the people want. The two are not necessarily synonymous. Her primary objective is not to win the support of the opposition but the support of the people. When push comes to shove, she must stand firm on what she believes in. If the land supply task force proposes workable ideas, she must dare pursue them even without public consensus.

Lam ended her speech by saying the best is yet to come for Hong Kong. But for that to happen, she must understand there are times when she must be bold enough to forget about public consultations, ignore the opposition, and push ahead with what she believes in. If that makes her unpopular she will have to bow out after one term like Leung. That’s the price bold leaders pay.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.