There isn’t a lot about which David M Webb can talk without sounding as if he knows quite a lot about it. He was in sparkling form recently on RTHK in a performance where he deftly combined roles of shareholder activist, political commentator, scourge of the Jockey Club and master of the one-liner. Much of the credit, it should be said, must go to the interviewer, Stephen Davies, who, unlike some one might mention, seemed genuinely more interested in what his subject had to say than in what he could bring to the table by way of inane interruption and obtuse preachifying.
Hitting the ground running with a well-polished line about his former life (“I’m a reformed investment banker – I haven’t had a deal for many years now”), Webbie’s first topic was freedom of information – or, this being Hong Kong, the lack of it. Because nearly all large companies listed locally have a controlling shareholder (as likely to be the government – whether of the HKSAR (the MTRC) or Mainland China (passim) – as a distinguished family such as the Lis or the Kwoks), the tendency is “to reduce information flow to a minimum”.
Rather than establishing a freedom of information ordinance as first-world societies which pay at least lip service to the open society have done, Hong Kong brings us what it does best, a toothless fudge with a giant loophole, in this case, a code on access to information which is able to stave off most requests for substantive information by playing the ‘Price-sensitive Information” card. This suits the government fine (since they see themselves as a “self-contained entity” rather than as representatives of the people), and government-controlled companies such as the MTRC just fine too, as they can simply opt out of announcing the terms of the winning bids for their land tenders – probably just as well, suggests the Webbmeister, as determining who wins is “something of a subjective exercise”.
The next bunch of scoundrels the man who moonlighted as a student by writing games for the Sinclair Spectrum turns his microscope on is Hong Kong Jockey Coterie (oops! “Club”). “The charity thing is a fig-leaf to protect the existence of a monopoly gambling company” which funnels enormous sums in taxes to the HKSAR government, with just 1% of what gamblers lose going into the HKJC Charities Trust – “which sometimes spends it and often hoards it”. A situation mirrored just down the road at the Tamar central government offices, where the beneficiary coterie sits on its own swollen horde like a particularly self-satisfied if rather dumb dragon.
Webbie isn’t finished yet. Now it is the turn of the Functional Constituencies (“not a sensible way to construct your government”) to receive the treatment, introduced by another classic one-liner: “We don’t bother with lobby groups in Hong Kong because we give them a role in parliament”. Webb’s main point is that civic nomination being so much pie in the sky (and Occupy Central a “sideshow”), we need to dilute the FCs by the time the next LegCo elections come round in 2016 in order that we might have a more broadly based Nomination Committee for the election of the Chief Executive the following year.
And we need to get our skates on, as 1 July 2015 is the deadline for proposals to broaden the membership of the FCs, in such a way that, for example, all financial services workers get to vote for their representative in the same way that all teachers already get to vote for their rep. Webb’s argument is simple: since the Nominating Committee mirrors the FCs, broaden the FCs by giving everyone the vote and kicking out corporate voting.
Finally, with parting shots at the dictatorship in the PRC (an economic slowdown could trigger an “overthrow” of a government which has “bought the consent of the people”) and our own Chief Executive (anyone who is ushered in in 2017 with no electoral mandate as part of a “rigged election” will be welcomed by half a million protesters on the streets), Webb is off to update his list of dodgy directors and continue his fight against the cosy relationship between government, Hong Kong Exchange and Clearings and the Securities and Futures Commission.
Karl Popper wrote in Conjectures and Refutations that "Classes never rule, any more than nations. The rulers are always certain persons. And whatever class they may have belonged to, when they are rulers they belong to the ruling class."
And human rulers have one characteristic above all others - the desire to keep being rulers. Which, in a nutshell, is why those who are ruled require - for their safety and sanity, not to mention the establishment of the conditions to attain their full potential - the broadest possible representation in the political process.
Whether lying down on the road is the best way of participating in the political process is of course a different question. Seeking to maintain union with those who have similar goals and philosophies, on the other hand, is always a threat to a totalitarian government.
Bleeding-heart liberals from Woking (and I thought only Italians lived in the ugly Surrey railway town) have been on their high horses after Steve Wilson, a BBC football commentator, referred to the German national song as “Deutschland über alles” (Germany over everything! – note, not “everyone”).
If it’s any consolation to Wilson, the verse in which these magnificent revolutionary (and indeed humanistic) sentiments are expressed was part of the national anthem when West Germany, as it then was, last won the World Cup in 1990.
My favourite, though, is the second verse – also now proscribed by the PC brigade – which sings the praises of German wine and German women, two of the country’s biggest income earners and therefore, so you’d think, well worth celebrating in song.
The verse the bureaucrats left the benighted citizenry with is so dull you can hardly blame the men folk for sitting down when they need to take a leak.
Honestly, I don't know why I still bank with them. People who have their crappy "Advance" account (I'm told you need to keep an average balance of HK$200,000 to qualify for this privilege) tell me that they never bother queuing in the dedicated "Advance" line, as it's always quicker to queue up with the plebs.
And then today, because my local branch doesn't stock foreign currency (it is a bank, after all - what else should you expect?), I had to train it to Mong Kok to get some Thai Baht. As I was waiting, what should pollute my sight but a giant poster emblazoned with the slogan "We nurture solutions for you".
No you don't, HSBC (for it is they), because you can't. No one can. Check Google if you wish, if checking, proofreading, editing and indeed thinking are part of your - what would you call it? - "customer-focused solution-oriented portfolio", I suppose. Wevs!
Look, let me spell it out in terms that even a group of drones who are totally committed to copying what others are doing, and who consider it the height of out-of-the-box thinking to go beyond those they typically ape by sticking buzzwords together for no better reason than that they are buzzwords. You can nurture people (fat chance! only joking), you can nurture plants (think Prince Charles talking to his) but you can't nurture bloody solutions. They're inanimate.
So what can you do to your solutions? Well, you can do us all a favour and chuck them in the bin labelled "Dangerous and toxic clichés", take them to the landfill, cover them with your MBA assignments and consultants' reports, and nurture them there to your heart's content.
Responding to the killing of three people in her city, Las
Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman refers to “cowardly, evil and sick acts” being
repeated across the United States as “people express themselves with bullets”.
The problem with this kind of self-expression is that
bullets are designed and built (at great profit to the manufacturers, who double
as sponsors and supporters of Congressmen and –women) to maim and kill. That’s
their purpose. All in all, then, a barbarous and materialistic form of
self-expression, of no merit whatever.
I am currently reading English Social History by George Macaulay Trevelyan, and what a
fine book it is – indeed, what a fine example of meaningful self-expression. By
largely ignoring battles and monarchs, and focusing on the life of the people
in the country and the towns, Trevelyan (the great nephew of the historian Macaulay)
paints a picture of England that is affectionate, optimistic and largely
positive without ignoring the unconscionable or indeed the unforgivable.
His reflections on Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which was highly influential
on both sides of the Atlantic when it was published 250 years ago, are so pertinent
to the current (lack of) debate on the Second Amendment that they are worth
quoting in full:
“The fault was that the law thus idealized was regarded too much as static, as a thing given once for all whereas, if law is indeed to be the permanent rule of life to a nation, it must be apt to change with the changing needs and circumstances of society…Jeremy Bentham, the father of English law reform, regarded Blackstone as the arch-enemy, who stood in the way of change by teaching people to make a fetish of the laws of England in the form which they actually bore at the moment, a form dictated by the needs not of the present age but of ages long past."
Those Aussies are priceless. Fox Sports had got Mark Woodforde to wheel Fred Stolle into the commentary box for last night's men's final at Roland Garros and help him out when he got confused about the score or started rambling about the need to use Hawkeye rather than have chair umpires jumping off their chair and having a guess at which of a hundred marks on the court was the one the ball had just made.
"Woody" - fresh from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the men's over-45 doubles to the McEnroes (Fred: "Well done, Mark, on getting to the final of the doubles"; Woody: "Yeah, but we lost") - went from terse to worse when put on the spot by Fred about Andy Murray's decision to replace Ivan Lendl with Amelie Mauresmo.
"Um, well, Fred, I'm speechless", said Woody, adding, in case Fred didn't know what that meant, "I have nothing to say about that".
Is it because Amelie is a woman that Woody was gobsmacked, or is it because Amelie's the sort of woman who isn't likely to give Woody a woody that he was rendered uncharacteristically unopinionated? Or is it just because she's French?
"Unless we become a Totalitarian state and forget all our Englishry, there will always be something medieval in our ways of thinking, especially in our idea that people and corporations have rights and liberties which the State ought in some degree to respect, in spite of the legal omnicompetence of Parliament." (GM Trevelyan, English Social History)
Rest to those who were murdered in Beijing on 3-4 June 1989, and peace to add to the courage of those who seek acknowledgement of what happened.
On the flight back from Blighty, I watched two recent(ish) films, each the subject of some acclaim, I believe. The first was The Book Thief and the second was Frozen.
To be honest, though the latter was animated, it was difficult to tell which was the cartoon fantasy, as the gentle Holocaust-era offering served up a heroine as cute as the two with the impossible waistlines that starred in the Shrek imitation.
Not only did we have a quest, we also had a realm in danger from a dodgy prince and - most regrettably for the mental health of the viewer - a bonzo with a heart of gold accompanied by a dumb animal. While Shrek gave us an annoying donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy, Frozen blessed us with a literally dumb reindeer (Sven - yes, it was that corny) that communicated with its human sidekick (Ovaltine, if I recall correctly) through grunts and gestures, which were then translated for us by Ovaltine in an irritating whine.
Back in Germany, Alice in Vonderlandt was charming everyone and his dog in a charming provincial town, where the SS had stepped off the set of 'Allo 'Allo, and the burghers lived in such a state of grace that they were willing to overlook the odd Jew and Communist. Illiterate when she came under her adoptive parents' wing, Alice is soon reading The Invisible Man (in English, although she still speaks with a German accent) under Geoffrey Rush's expert tuition, with a little help from the Burghermeister's wife, who takes a Platonic shine to the angelic prepubescent and lets her have the run of her library.
I'm not sure I got the message which the makers of this film were trying to put across, but the only moral I could derive from it was that if you want to live a long and happy life of marital bliss, then ditch the Heine and Heidegger and read HG Wells. As for the Disney mush, the moral was spelt out by Sven so that even Ovaltine couldn't make a complete Horlicks of it.
If you are a princess and have been put under a spell, the old remedy (a good rodgering by a handsome and it must be said opportunistic prince) no longer applies. In the pappy PC age which Disney has helped create, all you need to be happy (and slim) ever after is an "act of lurve". Yep. That simple. If only they had made this stuff when I was an obese 30-something...
Who would have thunk it? Hong Kong’s bus “services”
have finally entered the modern era, each within the space of a few months finally
providing their passengers with the chance to make comments and suggestions online
at their websites.
Okay, so this means that the government has
made them do this – non-compliance becoming an issue when they are up for monopoly,
oops, franchise renewal. But before you get so carried away that you write a letter
in praise of the HKSAR Government to the SCMP, bear in mind what a little birdie
told me – the government only took any action because of a very persistent
citizen who refused to let the issue go after years of being fobbed off with
Sir, or madam, whether you are, I salute you!
Here are the links, in case you get fed up with
WhatsApping and fancy a bit of “stakeholder engagement”.