Friday, October 20, 2017

Kapok: Everything must change...

In The Leopard, the beautiful novel by Lampedusa set in slow-changing Sicily, Trancredi’s famous assertion that “everything must change for everything to remain the same” holds a particular truth for Macao, especially so when considering the latest urge by the Chief Executive’s family to widen its hold on power in the SAR.
When learning last week about the scheme to promote Mr Chui Sai Cheong, the Chief Executive’s brother, to the “elected” position of Vice President of the Legislative Assembly, my first reaction was one of disbelief. I had been under the impression that since May 2014, when 20,000 people took to the street against the extravagant preferential treatment senior officials were conferring to themselves, that some kind of attempt at greater adequacy between the people’s expectations and the priorities of the government — not only in speeches — would be the new normal in Macao.
One can easily perceive the lingering danger of deception: years of maladministration and substandard urban development coupled with the inept management of a tragedy that ultimately claimed 10 lives can in large part explain the remarkable results of the pan-democrats in the September 17th legislative elections. The New Macau Association-affiliated legislators made history by totalling more than 30,000 votes, and if José Pereira Coutinho and Agnes Lam are added, we are talking about a sizeable 55,000 votes and more than 40% of the elected seats. Moreover, the youngest ever elected legislator, 26-year old Sulu Sou, officially representing NMA, happens to have been the main organizer of the May 2014 protest!
Choosing a handful of academics as appointees could also be seen as a wise move on the part of the Chief Executive, and at the very least paying lip-service to the grand plan of “scientific policy-making”. Why then cast a shadow on the resolve to engage in “sunshine government”?
As reported in the press, there was quite a bit of lobbying in order to ensure the “election” of Chui Sai Cheong prior to the vote last Monday. In a way, this is reassuring as it seems to indicate that not everybody was convinced this was the best of options. If we leave aside the merits, the question of seniority does not hold as President Ho Iat Seng has himself been a member of the LA only since 2009, whereas the longest-serving legislator is Ng Kuok Cheong, a democrat. Then, if custom is to be considered, we now have two business-related legislators at the helm of the LA, a first since the handover as these two positions have traditionally been split between labour and business pro-establishment camps. But if reticences there were, they apparently cleared out over the weekend: Mr Chui Sai Cheong received 29 votes out of 33 during the first plenary session!
Clearly, this is not illegal for Mr Chui-the-brother to become Vice President of the LA, but this is not a matter of legality — although it should be if one considers that the independence of powers is enshrined in the Basic Law, or is it really? In case of absence of the President, the Vice President presides over meetings, decides on the dates and convenes special and emergency sessions: how would that look? And the argument of smallness of Macao does not hold, as smaller cities in the world manage to extend the circles of trust beyond the family bonds. Even the Kaczyński brothers — twins! — in Poland kept their act only on the side of the executive branch.
As we are reminded by the OECD, a conflict of interest can be defined as “a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest,” and this, in turn, is “considered an indicator, a precursor and a result of corruption.” Quite a treacherous line to walk at the time of the 19th Congress further north.
Published in Macau Daily Times on October 20, 2017

Friday, September 29, 2017

Kapok: Everything's relative

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is to drastically lower my expectations. Mind you, I don’t mean to be ironic or even nasty: after all one of the main conditions of happiness resides in one’s capacity to lessen the probable discrepancy between over-ambitious objectives and the biting reality principle.
Hope and a renewed horizon for uplifting expectations do exist in Macao politics, but again, measured on a Richter scale, the extent of change in the wake of the September 17 legislative elections looks more like a slight tremor than a full-blown earthquake. And then, depending on where you stand, it will feel more like a magnitude 1 quake in Hong Kong and most of the world — nobody feels anything; a magnitude 3 in most of Macao — people near the epicentre feel it; and possibly a magnitude 5 if you venture on UMAC’s campus on Hengqin or, of course, in Calçada de Santo Agostinho, where the siege of New Macau Association (NMA) is situated.
Most of the press in Hong Kong just counted four pan-democrats being elected, characterising Agnes Lam Iok Feng as “rising establishment”. This simple diminishing head-count was enough for one of the major international news agencies to simply drop the idea of writing a lengthy special feature on the event.
And then, many comments by analysts were pretty dismissive of the final outcome: after all, was I told, the Macao-Guangdong Union — an ageing pro-establishment communal grouping backed by the Liaison Office — had come first in terms of total votes for a single list. And the fact that the list conducted by Mak Soi Kun had fared worse this time around than it had in 2013, loosing one percentage point of the votes, seemed to be of no consequence, even when sizing up this result with the 17.77% gathered by the three NMA-sprouted lists put together.
Ultimately, it proved very difficult to convince outsiders that society had won over pro-business interests, and that both a rational-posturing academic and a happening-prone 26-year old democratic militant could potentially play a game-changing role. For me, there is no doubt that the windows of the Macao Legislative Assembly are going to widen, and its walls, ceiling and floor pushed out.
In a way, the result for the so-called “indirectly- elected legislators” and the lining-up of the brand new seven appointees are already echoing the change.
For the indirectly-elected legislators who face no competition, and for whom the selection process is institutionally rigged, the message could not be clearer: it is simply farcical — two Chui relatives still and Fernando Chui’s former chief campaigner for the 2014 election — and thus forces of conservatism have come to embody the caricature of patronage and illegitimate representativeness.
I confess that I have always been strongly against the idea of having seven legislators appointed by the Chief Executive: whatever the rationale in an executive-led system, I have always felt that it was too gross a meddling of the executive power in the legislative branch of government — and in no small way, as these seven represent 21% of the legislature.
But this time around, things look different. Confronted with a real push from society as reflected by the legislators returned via universal suffrage, Fernando Chui had to demonstrate some kind of sense, connecting at long last the dots with his 2011 policy address in which he had promised a “sunshine government and scientific policy-making”. Out (or re-allocated) are the cronies, the boisterous vulgar misogynists and pro-business weathercocks posing as academic paragons. In are the experts: three focusing more on business and gaming (two from UMAC, one from MUST) at a time when casino concessions are up for renewal, and two being well-versed in legal intricacies (one from UMAC and a part-timer from City U). Factional politics still indeed play a role — Jiangmen, Fujian and Shandong-backed — and the oddball is not the new engineer, but rather the only one surviving from 2013 and the scion of one of the most distinguished families of Macao. Decadence?
Published in Macau Daily Times on September 29, 2017

Friday, September 15, 2017

Kapok: Unfair it is

In a two-round election, you follow your heart in the first round and trust your brain in the second. In Macao, we only have one round, so both heart and brain have to be mobilised together. More so because this unique shot at excessively limited democracy happens within a very unfair system.

Unfair because only 14 seats out of 33 are returned via universal suffrage. That is a mere 42.4% of the legislature elected via some kind of competitive suffrage whereas the Macao Basic Law clearly states that “the majority of its members shall be elected”. Contempt for the ultimate law of the land is thus added to injustice!

To be clear, the so-called 12 “indirectly-elected” legislators do not deserve the label of “elected”, unless exactly matching the number of candidates with the number of seats somehow fits the notion of competition.

Has there been any progress since the handover? Yes indeed, at the pace of what the Macao government considers acceptable: we had 10 elected legislators out of 27 in 2001 (37%), growing to 12 out of 29 in 2005 (41.4%) as specified in the Basic Law, and then in 2012, the government took it upon itself to add 2 directly elected seats and 2 indirectly elected seats for the 2013 elections… at the time it was deemed a “successful progress in constitutional development” — an extra percentage point for the representation of the population at large!

Unfair because of the voting system. The so-called “modified d’Hondt” mechanism, a sub-category of Party-list proportional representation, is designed to break down the totality of seats into tiny pieces. The original design was fine as far as representativeness was concerned — although it applied to only a fraction of the Assembly — but Macao introduced its own modification for the pre-handover 1992 elections: the quotient ascribed to calculate the allocation of successive seats after the first one was significantly inflated, thus making it quasi-impossible to elect four members on any single list. Obviously, the then president of the Assembly, Carlos d’Assumpção, had not taken lightly that another list, connected to the independent Chinese-backed “livelihood faction” led by Alexandre Ho Si Him, had received the most votes and managed to lodge three legislators in the 1988 chamber. 1992 then saw the first victory of Ng Kuok Cheong, on a democratic agenda, as well as the first election of Fernando Chui Sai On, on a list, strangely enough, representing the Macao Federation of Trade Unions. Since then, the number of lists in competition has soared, and split lists can even be said to be a 2017 “new normal”!

Finally, it is unfair because of the rigidity of the electoral law regarding campaigning — even more so since the December 2016 amendments — and the unbalanced witch-hunt conducted by the Electoral Affairs Commission (CAEAL). Posting a unique electoral flag outside a dedicated campaigning site is liable to prosecution. But patriotic schools instructing parents on which candidate to choose is of no concern to the Commission. The same goes for the sixty “non-electoral activities involving the distribution of benefits” [查詢法人舉辦非競選福利活動] as detailed by Jornal Tribuna de Macau earlier this week, connected to prominent traditional associations and the lists conducted by Mak Soi Kun, Si Ka Lon, Song Pek Kei, Ho Ion Sang, Wong Kit Cheng, Angela Leong and Melinda Chan. Further, the CAEAL and the CCAC are for now turning a blind eye to “non-electoral activities intended to confer benefits in which candidates are involved” [查詢候選人參加福利活動申報] (!): no less than 62 events for Wong Kit Cheng & co, 24 for Si Ka Lon & co., and an identical 13 events for Angela Leong & co. and Mak Soi Kun & co.

Not so long ago, members of such a traditional and communal association were condemned in first and second instances to prison terms and ineligibility for vote buying despite having denounced selective law enforcement and even political persecution. The times they are a-changin’!

Published in Macau Daily Times on September 15, 2017

Friday, September 01, 2017

Kapok: Being positive

Let’s start by what could be deemed “positive news” by some: despite (or because) of last week’s upheavals — the dreadful challenges brought about by undeviating Typhoon Hato — Macao society has demonstrated a remarkable resilience capacity: ill-prepared, confronted with overwhelming threats to their safety and earthly possessions, deprived of reliable information both before and at the time of the devastating gale, ordinary citizens unintentionally raised to hero status by displaying the very traits that make us so distinctively humane: our propensity to empathise and our moral urge to exert solidarity.

Overall, mutual aid prevailed over petty self-centred interests, and images of ordinary bravery were on par with frightening snapshots of destruction. Then came the news of three persons having lost their life, ultimately climbing to ten victims. Ten too many, and yet cleaning up started, mainly induced by grassroots and neighbourhood initiatives.

Civil security forces untiringly joined hands with residents — permanent as well as blue-card holders — soon to be seconded by PLA soldiers unprecedentedly called in to provide much-needed relief. The city as a whole was bracing for a second impact as Typhoon Pakhar was fast approaching and even though discontent was starting to grow, the collective bond weathered the storm, undistracted by the lingering bitter taste of incomprehension and unfairness.

These are indeed “uplifting” news. Dare I say not quite surprising? Despite the lamentations regarding the teaching of history and the ambiguities of a holistic destiny for our SAR, there is indeed a shared collective memory in and of Macao, one that is expressly connected to typhoons and the threats they represent, one that flows downhill from the Guia Lighthouse beside which typhoon signals have been hoisted since the end of the nineteenth century.

But positive news is not propaganda, quite the contrary. Positive news is produced by journalists whose stories help put on an equal footing the bright and the dark sides of current affairs. Positive news has the ambition, as one motto goes, to “offer quality, independent reporting on progress and possibility.” It is not and should not be a self-mutilating effort at not reporting the ugly side of things, and it is just an attempt at tilting the balance back towards constructive thinking, but certainly not a replacement for a more critical if not confrontational approach.

When the authorities prevent five Hong Kong journalists from entering the territory on the ground that they ‘pose a risk to the stability of internal security’, they are simply trying to sweep back the dirt under the rug while conspiring against freedom of information and crippling our Basic Law. Contrary to what Secretary Wong says, these were not “any” individuals, but the stories they published in Apple Daily, HK01 and the South China Morning Post had indeed been relentlessly exposing the shortcomings of the Macao government in the early hours of the disaster and the ineptness of the (non-existent) preventive measures at a time when most of the households were entirely deprived of clean water and electricity.

When the Macao Media Workers Association denounces in a public statement the documented pressures exerted over five local media editors to encourage more “positive news” and shield the Chief Executive from any criticism for the sake of public order and social harmony, they are denouncing blatant attempts at censorship and induced self-censorship.

Threatening would be rumour mongers and arresting three elders and a teenager for circulating hair-raising fallacies over WeChat about additional victims instil more doubts than certainties. Rumours do not initially feed on themselves. As social scientists reckon, they spread through “social cascades” and “group polarisation”, and the primary causes are the lack of transparency and trustworthy information.

When will they learn?

Published in Macau Daily Times on September 1, 2017

Friday, August 18, 2017

Kapok: The letter versus the spirit

A lot has been said already regarding the so-called “clarifications” issued on August 3 by the Electoral Affairs Commission (CAEAL) in relation to the forbidding of so-called “political propaganda” — or “publicity” to use a less controversial wording — prior to the two weeks of official campaigning starting on September 2.

The editor-in-chief of this very newspaper called it “bullshit” right away — no need to excuse his French there. And stupid it is, especially when it goes as far as indicating that starting on August 3, all messages, including electronic postings on social media, that would indicate a preference for a candidate are forbidden until the official launch of the campaign, and moreover that all messages posted prior to that date have to be removed!

This applies to the candidates themselves and their representatives, but also to regular voters; citizens whose “selfies” taken with candidates could be construed as “illegal publicity” if accompanied by “explicit or implicit indication” of voting preference. Nothing was said as to how long back this would apply: back to July 12, when the lists of candidates were made public? Or back to March 13, the very day the Election Day was made public? And then how “public” is truly public on social media platforms: does it apply to postings only visible to friends? Why would Sulu Sou, for example, decide to make his profile totally invisible for a while?

But the points made by the CAEAL are not only contrary to common sense, they indeed contravene several core principles of our glorified Basic Law, especially when it comes to freedom of expression and information, as rightly pointed out by some candidates and legal experts.

In the Chinese newspaper with the biggest circulation in Macao, half a page was dedicated to a particular group of interests in Macao yesterday, with three outgoing legislators — two of them running again — being given ample space to develop their thinking on livelihood issues: is that information or propaganda?

If I write in this column that only a particular group of legislators, based on opinion surveys, is doing a proper job: am I helping shape the opinion of the citizens or just mirroring the state of the public opinion?

And then if I say that the most absent legislators in the 2015-2016 session (the latest available) were Vitor Cheung (he attended only 32 sessions out of 42… almost 25 percent of absenteeism!), Chan Chak Mo (34/42) and Melinda Chan (35/42), am I just stating a fact or implicitly indicating that people should not vote for them?

And then, my vote could go to Melinda Chan — she is a directly elected legislator — but the other two are indirectly elected: I do have a say in Mr Chan’s election, being part of a cultural association that is recognised with the right to vote in functional constituencies, but then Mr Chan is running unopposed, so would my preference make a difference?

Several candidates, especially those who are not yet members of this august assembly, have also pointed out that this so-called clarification had two very detrimental effects.

A more immediate one is putting them at a disadvantage compared to sitting legislators. They, the hope for the future, cannot discuss public policies in relation to the elections whereas established legislators can simply talk about their daily routine, even if this consists mainly of complaining in public and complying when voting for government-sponsored bills comes. But then candidates who are truly active all year long, the ones who head meaningful political associations might not be at such a disadvantage: the ones really suffering are the gimmicky one-time vote stealers!

The most important second detrimental effect is that it prevents people from engaging in public debate and thus focusing more on issues rather than persons. Just like expressing a preference or a commitment should not be considered as campaigning, the interpretation of the CAEAL is simply speaking a treason to the spirit of the electoral law.

Published in Macau Daily Times on August 18, 2017