A discriminating bill

Feburary 28, 2008

Dennis Kwok Published in the SCMP

We understand that, to be good parents, we must ourselves be examples for our next generation. As the philosopher Lao Tzu said: “Tolead people, walk beside them.” How does our government measure up to these cardinal rules of leadership? The recent debate over the Race Discrimination Bill proposed by the government provides a useful insight into this question.

The aim of the bill is to outlaw all forms of racial discrimination in our society. To advocate racial equality is a great sign of maturity for HongKong. It demonstrates moral responsibility on an issue that plagued most of the 20th century. By enacting this legislation, we would demonstrate to all that the Hong Kong people are citizens of the world,and we would have earned our rightful title as an international city.

Ethnic minorities, including Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians and Pakistanis, have contributed to the success of Hong Kong through generations of hard work, and are more-loyal citizens than many others could claim. Some of them are trilingual, with a thorough grasp of Chinese language and culture. They provide a vital economic link between Hong Kong and other Asian countries. Yet, for generations,they have felt marginalised and underappreciated for their work and contribution to society. With the enactment of the anti-discrimination legislation, they would at least have a legal guarantee for equal opportunities and know that their children would receive fair and equal treatment in our public schools and hospitals. But is that so?

The government has insisted that the bill must provide a broad range of exemptions, covering most of the administration’s activities and that ofother public authorities. Clause 3 of the bill states: “This Ordinance applies to an act done by or for the purposes of the Government that is of a kind similar to an act done by a private person.” This not only violates the legal standards set by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, it effectively provides a licence for the government to engage in racially discriminatory practices in all governmental functions – such as the provision of education, health care and taxation. None of the legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or disability provides for these exemptions for the government.

The bill also does not seek to outlaw the discrimination faced by new immigrants from the mainland. They often come to Hong Kong with nothing but the hope of making a new start and the will to work in the most humble jobs just to earn a better living. They have every right to be treated with equal respect. But the discrimination often faced by these new immigrants limits their employment opportunities and locks them in poverty without the means to escape. The tragedies we have seen in Tin Shui Wai are glaring examples of this social problem. The UN states that the objective of the International Convention on theElimination of Racial Discrimination includes the need to outlaw discrimination based on immigrant status.

Our government took the right step in introducing this bill, but why is it not willing to be bound by the same law as everyone else? If it is serious about leading the fight against racial discrimination, why does it insist on putting itself above the law and allow a legal loophole for institutional racism to thrive?

History teaches us that eliminating racial discrimination in any society requires much more than new laws; it takes years of civic education to reform people’s attitudes. With this double standard in place, how can we expect the government to take a leadership role in the education ofthe public?

Perhaps our bureaucrats fear the legal and practical implications of thebill. After all, pragmatism is the buzz word for Donald Tsang Yam kuen’s administration. But, when it comes to questions of moral values and the vision of a fair and just society, simply being pragmatic with a”get the job done” mindset is not enough. Our government must lead by example.

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