Leadership lessons amid the Covid-19 crisis

March 11, 2020 17:23
Carrie Lam has failed to provide the right leadership for Hong Kong amid the coronavirus epidemic, continuing her poor record from last year when the city witnessed months-long social unrest, critics say. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong has survived through the intense social turmoil and conflicts that spanned the entire second half of 2019. As the protests crisis waned, the city now faces fresh uncertainty in relation to the future, with the Covid-19 epidemic fueling fear and apprehension among the citizens.

Much to our distress, we have experienced both man-made calamities and an unforeseen disaster over the past nine months.

Last year, we were told to stay away from people wearing face masks. Ironically, now, amid the coronavirus crisis, we have to keep away from anyone who isn’t wearing a face mask.

It makes one wonder, how long can the people bear the misfortunes in life?

The post-WWII generation of Hongkongers has never experienced any famine or poverty, and the citizens enjoyed economic prosperity and boom during the 1980s and 1990s.

People might have been placing wealth or social status above everything else in the past. But now the social unrest and the Covid-19 catastrophes would have come as a rude awakening. Following the twin calamities, there is this feeling among many people: in the face of great disasters, the only things that truly belong to you are your own life and your family.

Today, I believe what Hong Kong is badly in need of is a strong leader who will step forward and deliver a reassuring message in order to allay people's panic and apprehension and restore hope for the future.

This is exactly what Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has done lately.

In a recent televised address, Lee sought to lift the spirits of his fellow Singaporeans, conveying a message, among other things, that being ethnic Chinese doesn't mean one should bear the cross of the novel coronavirus that is commonly believed to have originated in China's Wuhan city.

It isn't a racial issue, Lee said, urging people of the world to "stick together and win this war”.

Throughout history, whenever mankind was facing huge catastrophes, a powerful speech from leaders often helped unite the citizenry and helped boost morale in society.

In Hong Kong, the anti-extradition bill saga and the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic have laid bare the fatal weaknesses of the city's leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor: she might be a very good policy executioner, but she lacks the political smarts.

As we all know, politics is an art of compromise as well as a balancing act.

Sadly, it has become crystal clear that Lam is good at neither of them, hence people's great suffering and deep resentment under her rule, something which I find frustrating and gut-wrenching.

In times of turbulence, what we look forward to is a leader who can give us the hope to survive and the strength to keep fighting, just as how Lee united his people and boosted their morale through a forceful speech.

Much to our disappointment, so far all we have seen on TV was Lam holding press conferences repeating the same old cliches written in dense bureaucratic prose, delivering her lines with a poker face and boring tone that leaves no positive impression whatsoever.

If Lam really wants to demonstrate to her citizens that she is a responsible chief executive, I would suggest that she leave it to her subordinates to report the bland figures on the epidemic, and instead, deliver a resounding speech that can lift Hong Kong people's spirits and inspire society into putting in greater efforts to collectively to win the battle against the virus.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Part-time Researcher of the Center for Asian Studies of Chu Hai College of Higher Education