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SARS: A Race for Leadership


In the context of Hong Kong¡¦s plight during the recent spread of SARS, I choose the term ¡¥race¡¦ in the very positive sense of the word. We compete in school when we were young; we compete in the work place now. We race in sporting events and campaign with great speed and vigor for our limited public offices. But none has the kind of urgency and importance as the race to control the many ill effects of SARS right now. In facing this unfamiliar and deadly enemy of nature, we should look at this race sportingly, as the driving force for progress.

Margaret Thatcher waged war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, which has hardly any political or economic values. President George Bush seized the opportunity of the 911 event and raised war with Binladen and Sadden Hussen with only some distant indirect connections. Both emerged as undisputed leaders despite the relatively weak reasons for the wars and the real economic troubles that they were facing at home. They achieved these results because the cause helped them to unite the nation with a clear sense of purpose. They delivered achievable results decisively and created a feel good factor for their people leaving them confident and proud. Leadership was demonstrated by acting long before the nation demanded that something be done. They won their cases as leaders in the race against time.

In a Letter to Hong Kong I wrote for the RTHK on the 6th April, 2003 (full text on my web-site), I was amongst the first to announce that Hong Kong is at war with SARS. I call on the sense of public duty of the media and citizens of Hong Kong to play on the same team in times of adversities to win the battle over nature¡¦s mischief and the opinion of the world. Now, we are joined by many more cities in this global village.

Fighting a common enemy

This time round in the history of mankind, nations are not at war with each other but at war with SARS as our common enemy. Whether we like it or not, leaders of these cities are all competing and racing against time on a global scale in full view of worldwide TV and media headlines. Billions are watching daily for every small step of medical progress made; every effort that we make to control our borders as part of our responsibility to the global community and most certain of all, they will be watching the incredibly stubborn figure of casualties that refuses to go down.

In the case of Hong Kong, the war that our political leaders face is on two fronts. Internally, we are fighting with the disease to save lives; racing against time to bring life back to normality and to save the economy from a serious structural blow. Externally, we are racing, hopefully in the positive sense of the word, with other great cities to see who are the better managers in this crisis. It is a serious challenge as well as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Leadership in medical technology; managerial skills in border control; in good communications and public education; and most important of all, in winning the support of the people of the city.

To give credit to where credit is due, Hong Kong won handsomely in the first round in honesty and transparency. Despite some of the half hazard co-ordination to start with, accurate and important public information were dispatched and surprisingly, reported by the press very responsibly. Compare this traditional strength of ours with the Mainland; it is something we should be very proud of.

Outstanding medical professionals

We also shine in the professionalism and bravery of our medical personnel. They continue to risk their lives undaunted by the high risks of serving the sick, despite the confusion and bureaucracy of the Hospital Authority and they are still not properly protected (comparing to their counterparts in places such as Beijing) to help them minimize their own risks. I am also proud of our researchers at the Universities who are putting their longstanding differences aside and have achieved so much in so little time. Even the top Universities in the world could have hardly done better.

However, there are also many areas where the Government could have done better. Then Mayor of New York Giuliani took the lead immediately after the 911 disaster. He worked creatively and diligently ahead of the commentators and therefore, the popular public opinions and earned his due respect from the whole of America as a forthright leader.

Good and bad

Hong Kong was the first city to recognize this seriousness of the outbreak but our top leaders are amongst the last to show a sense of urgency. We also seemed to be unaware and oblivious to the fact that the whole world is watching and still operate in our own usual bureaucratic snail pace. For example, we were one of the last Governments to listen directly to the plights and needs of the medical personnel in the frontline. We have to wait till others close their borders on us before we are willing to take our own border control much more seriously.

Despite our Universities and private sector offering help to the Government, they were ignored and we were outpaced by Shenzhen in installing infrared scanners in the border control areas. We lagged far behind Singapore, which has much less of a problem at this stage than Hong Kong, in delivering relief and economic revival measures. If Hong Kong still wishes to lay claim to the title, Manhattan of Asia, our Government must pull up its socks on the long road ahead and be ready to bring out that competitive spirit that has made Hong Kong such a great city.

I believe that the fundamental strength of Hong Kong that has made us a leading international city in the East is not in the size of our fat Government Reserves. The people of Hong Kong have always been quick to seize an opportunity. Given the right environment, we will respond swiftly to changes with imagination and resourcefulness. However, the Government must work in tandem with the private sector in order to succeed. By this I mean every move by the Government must elicit a similar and greater move by the much bigger private sector. It is only then the community acts in concert and all the strength and enthusiasm are directed to the common goal. Hong Kong will not win in this important race if the head thinks its own thoughts while the heart beats its own rhythm leaving the hands and legs totally uncoordinated.

I urge the Government to give all the support it can to our medical scientists and caretakers. They are our brave soldiers in the battlefield at war. It must take the lead too, to direct, channel and coordinate the tremendous voluntary efforts of the private sector that are ready to give but not quite sure how. In delivering the relief and economic revival measures, the Government must ensure that the retail, restaurant, hotel and aviation industries will also respond with self saving packages like generous discount offers and rewards to stimulate consumptions.

Stimulating the economy

I have also advocated the issue of consumption coupons in view of the fact that Hong Kong lacks any feasible financial tools to stimulate the domestic economy without significant leakages. I appeal to the community of accountant to stand behind the Government despite its shortcomings and let us concentrate on dropping those bleak SARS statistics and on boosting the economic figures of Hong Kong. Remember that the race for leadership is not just about Mr Tung and his handful of top officials but about Hong Kong staying in the race to be a leading city of Asia.


Dr Eric Li is the LegCo Accountancy Functional Constituency Representative. For more information, refer to his website at http://www.ericli.org 

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