Hemlock's Diary
18-24 May, 2008
Mon, 19 May
The international
financial media lament the resignation of David Webb from the board of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.  Not so the policy-making and opinion-leading elite of the Big Lychee, who greet the departure of the outspoken shareholder activist with a sigh of relief and not a little glee at this crushing defeat of one of those irritating gwailos who have been such a nuisance from time to time since the city’s return to the glorious motherland in 1997.
Webb’s downfall resulted from serious flaws common to many impertinent Westerners who whine incessantly about Hong Kong but carry on living in it.  One is a woeful inability to recognize that Hong Kong’s farsighted, British-trained bureaucrats have unparalleled expertise in every facet of civic governance, such as the guidance of economic development and particularly the nurturing of a world-class financial hub.  To question their wisdom is ridiculous and to propose alternatives to their decisions laughable.  Another is an obstinate refusal to understand the unique features of the city’s business culture and the requirements of its great, dynastic merchant princes, notably with regard to capital markets.  A third is an incomprehensible and unpatriotic lack of vision about the great potential for Hong Kong to leverage partnership, cooperation, integration and more partnership with the Mainland in order to gain numerous ‘win-wins’ like privileged access to Chinese IPOs or investors.  This reflects a naïve assumption, widespread among Anglo malcontents, that profit flows from successfully competing to add value, when everyone knows – that’s for losers.  Real money comes from cornering a market with official blessing.

Thus Webb imagined that the Hong Kong Stock Exchange – a listed company – should be run in the interests of its shareholders, developing products and relationships as its directors see fit, regardless of what perceptive civil servants-turned-politicians identify as being in the wider interests of society.  He also suffered from the tragic delusion that a global financial centre would benefit from burdening public firms with corporate governance rules backed by the expensive, inflexible, confrontational and sometimes embarrassing force of law, when everyone knows a quick phone call or averted gaze is all that’s needed.  Not least, he expressed his offbeat opinions in that annoying way that impresses other gwailos, like journalists, and leaves some of our leading public figures feeling slightly humiliated when their explanations of the true picture are presented as defensive and unconvincing.

Having essentially nationalized the Stock Exchange last September, Hong Kong’s leadership is now free to steer the institution, and the whole city, to a level of international greatness that will leave New York and London in the dust.  We will micro-manage our way to glory!  The market will attract the cream of Kazakhstan’s listings.  It will offer our tycoons ever more creative and convenient ways to raise funds.  And then there’s the Big One…  What if every single one of China’s 1.3 billion people were allowed (is
compelled too much to ask for?) to invest in Mainland companies via Hong Kong and Hong Kong only?  Imagine that wall of money, cascading down upon us – without us having to bother with any of that tiresome rules-based, level playing field, value-creating rubbish.  That’s what you get when the world’s most capable and brilliant ex-civil servants are free to fill the Stock Exchange board with loyal, well-trained and disciplined directors who understand, and unruly foreign know-it-alls, formerly in the tent pissing out, have gone off to do something else.

Tue, 20 May
A candidate to replace David Webb on the Stock Exchange board
outlines his platform.  (I recall hearing this monologue for the first time several years ago and astounding fellow listeners by declaring it the most succinct way I could have thought of to explain the problem – which I still feel.  Maybe it’s just me.)
On the subject of video clips, Seelan Palay’s One Nation Under Lee kept me interested for 45 minutes last night.  As well as saying almost everything Singaporeans aren’t allowed to say, it is entertainingly polemical, with creepy background music and visual effects.  My favourite part has to be when JB Jeyaretnam (jailed and bankrupted by Harry for thinking) utters the quintessential ‘P’ word that describes the Lion City’s style of government.  YouTube has a two-part clip showing a private screening of One Nation Under The World’s Expert on Everything during which hapless Ministry of Truth ‘Media Development’ officials turn up to confiscate the DVD containing the uncensored material, then came back to demand the projector.
Such material is the perfect antidote to that feeling of slight despair that is bound to affect anyone who spends more than a few moments a day contemplating the ponderous, amateurish, panicky, not-always-amusing, out-of-depth steps forward and backward that pass for political administration in the Big Lychee in the 21st Century.  Pro-Tibet activists are bundled into police vans to protect them from the Mainland tourist mob.  Urban renewal and planning is being run by psychopaths.  The grotesquely overpaid civil service awaits an above-inflation pay hike.  Officials with housing, car, school fees, medical coverage and a pension for life tell welfare recipients to be more self-reliant.  Some cretin wants to blow HK$50 billion on a road bridge to a place hardly any Hong Kong vehicles are allowed.  Anyone who intimidates policymakers by knowing what they are talking about is eased out and mocked in private by others as a badge of pro-establishment loyalty.  Just when it’s getting to the point when you feel an overwhelming urge to march up to Government House and give Donald Tsang a damn good thrashing with a rattan cane, switch on One Nation Under That Drooling Power-Crazed Maniac.  Everything suddenly seems better. 

As an added bonus, the film also offers (not that we in Hong Kong need it) convincing evidence that, if East Asian pro-democracy activists should be persecuted for anything, it must be their street performances of
We Shall Overcome.

Wed, 21 May
Our dashing Chief Executive Donald Tsang announces the exciting
appointment of eight Undersecretaries, who will serve as deputies to the politically appointed ministers who head up major branches of Government.  The arrival of this second layer of outsiders further diminishes the roles (but not, of course, remuneration) of the senior civil servants occupying the Permanent Secretary slot in each Bureau.  Under the British, these mandarins’ positions came with top policy-making and political responsibilities in each portfolio area.  Now, they are reduced to advising and message-carrying, possibly with some TV sitcom Yes Minister-style subterfuge thrown in for fun.
When Tung Chee-hwa appointed the first layer of non-civil servant ministers back in 2002, it was embarrassingly apparent that many possible candidates for the jobs had politely but firmly refused his pleas to join his sinking ship.  Half of the ones he managed to get – like Regina Ip at Security – had simply been dragged over from the bureaucracy.  The rest mostly had ‘second choice’ stamped on their foreheads or bore barrel-bottom scrape marks.  How much happier, better-looking and bright-eyed this lot seem, especially for second-tier posts whose holders will spend much of their time being humiliated and barracked by legislators.  (Defending the minutiae of Sir Bow-Tie’s policies from vicious, publicity-seeking elected representatives drove some senior civil servants to a state of semi-madness, which is half the reason they have accepted their sidelining without much protest.  The other half is the artful, face-sensitive design of the bureaus’ organization charts, which give underlings and casual onlookers the impression that the Administrative Officers today at the peak of their careers are the same masters of the universe they were during colonial times.)

The token seen-this-one-before-somewhere is Kitty Poon, who, in the days before she started going to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ hair stylist was an occasional columnist on the op-ed page of the
South China Morning Post.  Her articles were memorable for their lack of content that stuck in the mind for any great length of time, a characteristic that would appeal to Donald and his tragic phobia about new ideas. She is – it hardly needs to be said – Undersecretary for the Environment.

Eyebrows are being raised at the appointment of Kenneth Chen, boss of the Jockey Club’s sordid horse racing business, as Undersecretary for Education.  Critics are ignoring the many close parallels between relieving dimwitted poor people of what little cash they have by conning them into playing games of chance, and imparting into our young people the knowledge, creativity, civic mindedness and joy of learning that are so vital to the development of our society and humanity as a whole.  They are so numerous that I don’t have the space even to begin listing them.

By pure coincidence, obviously, several of the HK$200,000-a-month appointees have journalistic/PR backgrounds.  One is Kitty, and another is a balding guy, which leaves Julia Leung at Financial Services and Treasury.  I know nothing especially noteworthy about her except that she is so charming to behold that she undeniably qualifies as Undersecretary you would most like to take home with you and keep.

The appointments are not just a job-creation scheme, though they necessitate the hiring of eight office assistants to answer Undersecretaries’ phones and eight chauffeurs to drive them around town in the style to which they will shortly become accustomed, isolated from contact with the humble masses.  The idea is to groom future talent.  And Greg So (Commerce and Economic Development), as Kenneth Chen would surely agree, is the one you would bet on to be Chief Executive one day.  Although a fully paid-up leading light of the Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong, he is everything the traditional pro-Beijing camp are not – nice teeth and hair, a closely shaven chin, fluent English, a relaxed, confident manner and electability.  As a lawyer, he would at one time have fitted the typical profile for the Democratic Party, but times change.
Thurs, 22 May
In its determination to fill seven pages with Sichuan earthquake coverage each and every day, the
South China Morning Post starts to get desperate…
Which leaves me with more time for a journalistic, or at least editing, project of my own…
Bombing targets were 50 miles NW of Winnipeg and 100 and 200 miles to the west. Generally flights covered 400 to 500 miles and lasted 3 hours or more.  On my first flying day I did two flights totalling over 6 hours, one early morning, the other at night. Routes were planned to avoid trespassing into North Dakota, 40 miles south.                                                              Canada/UK 1944-45
At my urging, and under protest that there was nothing of note to record, my father wrote some memoirs in his last few years about his role in the downfall of global fascism and the emergence of modern Singapore from the rubble after Japanese occupation.  So I am starting to go through the 45,000 words and dozens of photographs, which cover 1943 to 1947, with a view to putting it all on-line as one of thousands of similar, potential social history sources. 

In insisting that his part in World War II was insignificant, he was not being merely modest.  For every great commander, medal-winning hero or witness to historic episodes, there were hundreds of nobodies.  So these will be the recollections of a random person – a poetry fan who hated sport and who, having just turned 19, found himself conducting aerial assaults on Canada.  Along with several hundred thousand others donning uniform as peace broke out and the military downsized, his training was followed by systematic demotion.  He never even saw any action, give or take…
On a line-up one morning a fellow in the back row was fooling around and I pointed him out to the person in charge, a Korean in white naval uniform. At the time I hadn’t realised the enmity that existed between the Koreans, who were relatively tall, and the Japanese and was somewhat startled when the Korean felled him with a massive punch to the head. Thereafter they all behaved themselves.                                                                                         Singapore 1946-47
Fri, 23 May
Rummaging through the kitchen cupboard at Perpetual Opulence mansions, I find that the two Filipino elves have seen fit to provide me with a choice of not one, not two, but three different brands of maple syrup.  The Appalachian branch of the Hemlock clan lavish the gooey liquid all over their grits and bacon at breakfast time, and some of my more eccentric British relatives dollop it on pancakes.  But I can’t think of a use for it, other than to dribble it sensuously and slowly along the torso of one of the newly appointed Undersecretaries – not that I have a particular one in mind, of course – and lick it off. 

But that would be self-indulgent.  In Western China, victims of the earthquake are in need of vaccinations and food.  We are not talking about the millions of homeless families, wounded people and orphaned kids struggling for shelter, medicine and food.  There are, by definition, millions of them.  They are ordinary, common men, women and children who do not have big round shiny eyes.  They don’t jump up and down and screech when you bend over them, grinning and slapping your knees.  They don’t obey your commands to stand, sit or fetch – at least not without being paid money.  They show no signs of being loyal and fun to be with.  They won’t lick your hand or jab their noses into strangers’ crotches or indulge in frenzied acts of onanism up against your elderly aunt’s cushions.  They won’t, if they have any choice, deposit excrement on the sidewalks, rip curtains up when you’re out or bark all day.  So to hell with them.  It is
the dogs of Sichuan who need our help.  They are, indeed, much loved by the local population.  Preferably, in my experience, stewed with ginger and black bean sauce.  I suspect maple syrup would work too.
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