Friday, January 05, 2018

Kapok: Apologies warranted

New Year greetings is a must for a politician and even more so for a statesman: it provides the perfect occasion to reflect on past deeds and put achievements as well as setbacks in a different light, when one is not only judged on his action but also on his capacity to reflect upon his action; it corresponds also to a new beginning, a form of rejuvenation stemming from the course one is capable to draw for the future, with clarity of mind and rigor of assessment, striking a fine balance between what is desirable and what is feasible. Ultimately, this is an opportune time to mend fractures, heal wounds and bring the community together, especially because it also corresponds to a time of rejoicing, even though Christmas in our part of the world tends to be overly concerned with its highly consumerist side. But in Macao we are lucky: handover day falls on December 20th, and so everything is about values and virtues, with handover celebration speeches extending their long shadow over the final two weeks of the year.
As it is often the case in Chinese, Mr Chui Sai On chose an adage in four characters — two times four actually — to title his New Year wishes: “bai zhe bu nao, ying nan er shang,” (百折不撓 迎難而上) that can roughly be translated by “being undaunted by repeated setbacks and meeting the challenges head-on.” It conveys the virtues of perseverance, and the capacity to surmount any kind of adversity. No doubt that this is fitting after the disaster brought about by the devastating typhoon Hato in August that claimed 10 lives, maimed more than 240 others and caused more than 11 billion in physical damage. Mr Chui makes no ambiguity about it as he devotes a lengthy paragraph making up one-fifth of his greetings to the matter. To say what exactly?
First, that this was the worst typhoon since 1953 and that everybody had been taken by surprise as the community had grown complacent as it had not been confronted with such upheavals in the “relatively peaceful past decades.” Then, Mr Chui goes on in praising the remarkable traditional virtues displayed by the Macao people, especially the ones of “inclusiveness” and “mutual assistance”, overcoming the difficulties thanks to a remarkable sense of solidarity. Had Mr Chui stop there, I don’t think I would have even bothered writing this column: after all, the rest of the greetings is just one big exercise in stuffing as many slogans as possible — “one belt, one road”, five-year plan, “centre for tourism and leisure”, “economic and trade co-operation platform for China and Portuguese-speaking countries”, etc. And then, Mr Chui’s greetings appear in the  Chinese language “Macao Daily News” next to the ones of the director of the Liaison Office in Macao, on page 7, in which Zheng Xiaosong provides a long commentary on the vision provided by the just concluded 19th Party Congress in Beijing. No wonder then that Mr Chui would make five references to the “one country, two systems” formula whereas he mentions only once the “high degree of autonomy” in his short recitation.
Even the overemphasis on the element of surprise and the common (and yet wrong) understanding that one cannot anticipate the unexpected are not that shocking after all: one cannot blame Mr Chui for not having read Emile de Girardin whose words should serve as the incipit of any policy address — “To govern is to foresee” (Gouverner c’est prévoir).
But when one fails to anticipate, when one promises repeatedly to build adequate infrastructure to fight flooding and natural disasters and yet one fails to deliver and is thus indirectly responsible for the death of 10 people, what should one do at the very least? Apologize! Not a word asking for forgiveness in Mr Chui’s sermon. Is being indomitable grounded in a total lack of empathy and sympathy? Isn’t Mr Chui aware that he is running the most reviled government since 1999?
Published in Macau Daily Times on January 5, 2018

Friday, December 22, 2017

Kapok: Detrimental ignorance

The results of the latest yearly survey regarding the trust Macao people place in their government is truly appalling. Not only has Mr Chui Sai On never been so unpopular, but 2017 marks also the first time his approval rating has dipped below the highly symbolic 50% bar. A low(est) score of 49.5% might not seem much, and yet it also corresponds to the largest yearly drop since Mr Chui stepped into the shoes of Mr Edmund Ho: between 2016 and 2017, he lost more than 10 percentage points! In a territory in which people do not get to elect their enlightened leader and the menu is adorned with a unique dish when selection time comes, this is quite a feat: why one would bother when one has no choice?
In 2009, when it was still possible and meaningful to administer political surveys in a Macao-based university, our questionnaire on “civic culture” had actually revealed that far from being politically apathetic the good citizens of Macao simply felt disenfranchised — they had no power over things. Given the opportunity, they indicated that they would actually vouch for a radically different institutional design in order to become at long last the masters of their own destiny: 51% of the people interrogated believed that the best way to designate the Chief Executive (CE) was through universal suffrage, whereas only 14% were satisfied with the way it was, almost 28% thought that the electoral commission electing the CE should be expanded and a mere 7% trusted Beijing to designate their leader directly.
Thus, the 2017 survey indicating such a lamentable popular support for the CE does not come as a surprise, and becomes even more humiliating when hypothetical vote intentions are being gauged: if the CE was this year returned via universal suffrage, only 20% of the Macao citizens would vote for Mr Chui! Again, the worst result ever. And the list goes on: greatest ever overall dissatisfaction (since 1999 moreover!) with the Macao government as a whole (44.3%; for the first time satisfaction has plunged below dissatisfaction); greatest ever dissatisfaction with the capacity of the government to improve the people’s livelihood (53.2%); greatest ever dissatisfaction with the capacity of the government to push for democratic development (39.2%); greatest ever dissatisfaction in the capacity of the government to protect human rights and freedom (28.3%); highest ever distrust in the Macao government (31.2%); highest ever lack of confidence in Macao’s future (26%); and the final blow comes from the question addressing the “people’s satisfaction in the Macao government’s performance after the typhoon”: 54.3% are voicing out their dissatisfaction!
To be fair, a few indicators (a minority) indicate little change: people are still okay with the performance of the government in maintaining economic prosperity (can they really be credited for that?); they are still quite confident in the capacity of the government to handle the relation with Beijing, about the policies coming from up north affecting the SAR, about the “one country, two systems” formula, about China’s own future and even pretty trustful of the central government. But then, isn’t it weird to see this disjunction? Isn’t the CE pre-screened by Beijing prior to even thinking of filling the position and isn’t he appointed by the central government? And the same goes for the secretaries. Shouldn’t Beijing be worried that its loyal executants perform so badly? How long before the level of incompetence starts affecting the people’s perception of the benevolent intentions of the capital?
Now, all the blame seems to come from the catastrophic mishandling of the murderous crisis brought forth by a devastating typhoon. Is that for sure? Will the passing of time mend the gaping distrust thus created? For us to be certain, we would need to run such surveys in Macao (this one is done by the University of Hong Kong) on a monthly basis, to better understand the fluctuations. Interestingly enough, I personally applied for such a monthly endeavour back in 2014, only to be turned down by the Macao Foundation. Time for a change? But with which independent tertiary institution?
Published in Macau Daily Times on December 22, 2017

Friday, December 08, 2017

Kapok: Scaring a monkey to safeguard the chicken

It is no secret that Macao’s political system is not only overly executive-led and highly dependent on the admonitions coming from up north, but also bogged down by vested corporatist interests whose vision regarding Macao’s future seldom goes beyond family or close affiliates, and how these interests fit with the grand design of the day as voiced out in the capital. Oh sure! it’s not one big happy family, and competition between clans can be rife, but like any environment driven by (huge) profit-making things get settled behind closed doors and pragmatism ultimately prevails. In traditional settings, overexposure to light is actually scorned more than the idea of conflict.
The suspension of Sulu Sou Ka Hou from his mandate in the Assembly perfectly illustrates the stern reaction any attempt at offsetting the system will provoke. I am even tempted to believe that newly- appointed legislator Pang Chuan is not lying when he declares that lawmakers, despite voting the suspension by 28 votes against four, did not receive any particular instruction: what’s the need? Out of 33 legislators, only five (some used to say four, and this vote might have helped clarify other things) are truly independent from these vested interests that often translate into conflicts of interest: corporatist branches will automatically bind together as soon as they feel threatened. And Mr Sou, because of his game-changing perspective, represents a threat to all. Ever since he was elected in September he has targeted all aspects of policy-making — and not only dealing with youth or more segmented concerns. He has directly challenged the Chief Executive in his handling of the Hato crisis, and thus questioned the total lack of accountability, starting from the highest echelon, so detrimental to Macao politics. In his own ordeal, he has shone “light” on black box processes, directly exposing on social media the respective positions of the members of the legislature’s House Rules Committee regarding his case, thus highlighting the inherent contradictions between claims and actual practice.
But eventually, the matter boils down to the original sin: what does legislator Sou stand accused of that would warrant a suspension of his mandate? Is he bound to appear in court for a crime of blood? Is he charged with cronyism and has he facilitated the employment of relatives or affiliates in public offices? Has he embezzled public money for personal enrichment?
None of the above: he stands accused of “aggravated disobedience” for having walked in the middle of the road instead of the pavement during a protest in May 2016 and subsequently thrown a paper-plane petition into the garden of the Chief Executive. The object of the demonstration: to protest about the opaque and controversial transfer of MOP100 million to Jinan University (Guangzhou) by the Macao Foundation, that happens to be presided over by the Chief Executive.
Interestingly enough, the biggest beneficiary of funds endowed by the Macao Foundation in 2016 is none other than Macau University of Science and Technology, the very university that employs legislator Pang Chuan. Additionally, Mr Pang’s boss sits on the board of the Foundation and the Executive Council. The second biggest beneficiary is the Kiang Wu Hospital Charitable Association, connected to quite a few legislators too, including Chui family members. The third biggest is the foundation behind the City University of Macao, with connections to at least three legislators. Then the Macao Federation of Trade Unions, the fourth biggest beneficiary, is directly linked to four legislators; etc.
What motivates the suspension of Mr Sou then, contrary to what Mrs Angela Leong or Mr José Chui Sai Peng, both sitting on the board of the Macau Foundation, have said is not the respect for the law or the independence of justice: it is to remind the youngest ever-elected legislator who the boss is! Unfortunately, this has not only been done at the expense of our already fragile rule of law, but also with potentially very disruptive consequences for the harmony of our society.
Published in Macau Daily Times on December 8, 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017

Kapok: At a snail's pace

Looking back at the titles of my column over the past five years, I have now exhausted almost every possible expression to convey the idea of “slow” and “minimalistic” change when it comes to characterising the pace of institutional change in our city. At times, stronger wordings crept in the body text: missed-opportunity, unsubstantial, meaningless and even failure — as in total discrepancy between the proclaimed intent and the effective outcome. Mine being an opinion column penned by a free-wheeling academic, it is only logical that my take on things could be legitimately dismissed as being only a standpoint, one among many others, and this despite the many arguments provided.
With that in mind, let’s turn to the reply given by Sonia Chan, the Secretary for administration and justice who just presented her action plan for next year, to the query of legislators Sulu Sou and Au Kam San who expressed their concern regarding the lack of progress in democratising the political system of Macao. Even though Mr Sou was kind enough to add “since 2012” in his question, Mrs Chan insisted that indeed the reform of 2012 (additional two directly-elected seats and two indirectly- elected seats in the legislature as well as 100 extra representatives in the election committee of the Chief Executive) was “one step taken towards political development” — she actually refrained from using the word democracy or democratic, unlike her predecessor. She then argued that too “frequent changes” could actually have an adverse effect on the “social and economic development” of the SAR, and that it was thus better to “consolidate the outcomes” of the 2012 changes and further study the effects of these before moving forward again.
In similar fashion to the discussion related to the establishment of a new municipal level of government, Mrs Chan was very bluntly dismissive of Sou and Au’s challenging objections, whereas they were merely asking for a plan and agenda. For Mrs Chan, these are only “matters of opinion” — two, among many others. But are they really?
First, the very fact that an additional “two directly- elected seats” represent a marginal 7% increase in the overall number of seats in the legislature would tend to acknowledge the idea of a very small step taken in 2012 — the two additional indirectly-elected seats cannot really be counted as a “progress” as both slots were filled by candidates running unopposed, thus even further diluting the meagre advance. We can note furthermore that in the transcript of Mrs Chan’s response, there is no indication that she considers the December 2016 changes in the Electoral Law for the legislature as a further development.
Second, the constitutional changes of 2012 have already affected two rounds of legislative election (in 2013 and 2017), and thus a new cycle of constitutional amendments would only affect the next election (in 2021): can this be deemed too frequent? If 2012 is considered as a step, then it calls for other steps and by definition, even though the pace is slower than one of radical change — no running — it entails further developments, sooner than later if one does not want to fall.
Third, what have the very limited constitutional amendments of 2012 been conducive to? Further competition and thus pressure on senior officials? Think Fernando Chui running unopposed in 2014 and his brother becoming the vice-president of the Assembly in 2017. Further accountability of senior officials? Think Prosecutor general Ho Chio Meng being put behind bars and Fong Soi-kun deciding to raise Typhoon 8 signals from his home.
Fourth, if it is only a matter of opinion, why weren’t there (many) other legislators to support Mrs Chan and her suggestion that further democratisation can impede “socio-economic development” — read, “democracy is disruptive and we don’t want that in our harmonious society”? If they agree, which I do not doubt, why did not they say it loud and clear? And then, how do they intend to make the system truly accountable?
As once noted by William Blake, “prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.”
Published in Macau Daily Times on November 24, 2017

Friday, November 10, 2017

Kapok: As little as possible

This is rather unfortunate timing. On the one hand, the project of law on Labour Unions proposed by José Pereira Coutinho gets defeated during the October 27th plenary session of the Legislative Assembly — the 9th rejection! And on the other hand, the ongoing public consultation regarding a (very) partial amendment of the Labour Relations Law and the introduction of a legal framework defining part-time employment provides a caricatural demonstration of what is wrong with participative processes, especially when designed and acted upon with an exclusively bureaucratic mindset — initiators are to be blamed, not the ill-fated civil servants asked to deliver under ubiquitous constraints.
As far as the project of law on unions is concerned, the rejection of such legislation is not only counter to the Macao Basic Law (art. 27) and the many international conventions to which Macao is a signatory — including the 1948 ILO Convention concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize — but also against commonly admitted and well-established “good practices” concerning work-related disputes and their resolution. With the passing of time such a dismissive attitude borders on illegality. If Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even the People’s Republic of China can do it, why not Macao?
In the previous legislature, Fong Chi Keong presented self-serving tautologies: the defeat of such a bill on so many occasions simply demonstrated that there was no need for it and that indeed Macao society was so “harmonious” that the passing of such a law could ultimately only help stir trouble (!). This time, only Vong In Fai took the stand — Ma Chi Seng having run out of arguments thanks to the economic recovery — to brush off the bill for its lack of preparatory consultation with relevant governmental departments. Mr Vong, just like most indirectly-elected legislators, would easily forgo his right (and duty) to initiate law-making — in contravention of article 75 of the Basic Law. And yet, what is really troubling is not the fact that the bill was defeated by 15 votes against 12, but that 10 out of 14 directly elected legislators voted in favour whereas all seven legislators appointed by the Chief Executive voted against: a dismissal in first reading not only indicates a refusal to debate, but also a constant denial of the legislators’ right to introduce a bill, and a possible breach of the constitution. But then, if you start giving unions legal status, you soon have to regulate political parties and then in no time conditions for competition flourish and thus accountability takes root: who would want that?
It is very hard not to look at the consultation as a missed opportunity. Regarding part-time work, there is not much to say: a maximum of 72 hours over a period of four weeks would fall under the “short part-time” category as defined by the ILO, and then part-time is merely a way to remove already very limited protection(s) offered by the Labour Relations Law — so it boils down to a “race to the bottom”. Then, regarding the creation of paternity leave and the extension of maternity leave — a farcical addition of 14 days unpaid leave on top of the existing 56 days paid leave — if the consultation document does mention Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore and even Portugal as references, it utterly fails to allude to the comprehensive ILO report on “Maternity and paternity at work — Law and practice across the world” published in 2014. Convention No. 183 of the ILO “mandates a minimum [maternity] leave period of 14 weeks” with a marked attention to raise that period “to at least 18 weeks”!
With this new law, Macao falls in the same category as Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Kuwait. So much for being progressive! 
Published in Macau Daily Times on November 10th 2017