04/12/00 - South China Morning Post

The government has a blind spot to an obvious problem – racism. On November 30, the acting Secretary for Home Affairs, Kwan Wing-wah, said that Hong Kong did not need laws to prohibit race discrimination because the problem is not serious here.

Yes, thankfully there is no racial violence or overt racial tension. That does not mean there is no serious discrimination. It is disingenuous to argue that the degree of seriousness depends on whether there is violence. The Government would be severely criticised if it applied the same measure to discrimination against the disabled. There is no violence against the disabled, and yet no one argues anymore that there shouldn’t be laws to protect them from discrimination.

Equally, there is no basis to the argument that the number of people affected by racism is small. The fact is racism exists and for anyone aggrieved, without legal protection, there is no effective way for him or her to seek redress. This is not a quantitative issue. It is a moral one.

Without the force of law that provides a proper remedy, an aggrieved party cannot seek justice. No place that claims to be a world city and a civilised society should allow this to happen. Yet, this is precisely what the Government is saying.

In its report under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Government claims that 80 per cent of respondents to a survey opposed using legislation to prohibit racism. It also used the unsuccessful passage of a private race bill in the legislature in 1997 as further evidence that the people do not support legislation. I expect my government to be a social reformer, not an apologist.

It is because Hong Kong has a ‘soft’ kind of racism, and the number of people affected is few, that it has been possible for the Government and public to hide from facing the truth.

Indeed, most prefer to pretend racism is not here. It is uncomfortable for the majority to ask themselves how they feel about others on the grounds of race. No one wants to openly admit in public that they think less of some ethnic groups.

For those who do not experience racial prejudice, Hong Kong appears to be a tolerant society. But for those who suffer, it is a heartbreaking experience.

Let’s be honest. Racism is mainly experienced by the ethnic minorities and visitors with darker skin. It includes people with South Asian, African and Southeast Asian roots. New migrants from the mainland will also tell you about their sense of exclusion. Caucasians do not experience it and most seem to have no idea about how the darker-skinned minorities feel.

For a place that thrives on trade, it is shocking that members of such minorities should feel shopkeepers do not want them on their premises. Vendors can be less than polite to dark-skinned customers.

It is equally surprising that landlords do not want their money, preferring to rent to lighter-skinned people. It is also a common story among the dark-skinned minorities that people do not want to sit next to them on public transport.

The Government will argue that I am being unfair. After all, they are promoting public education. Surely, they should be doing that together with providing legal protection. I still fail to understand why Hong Kong cannot find it in itself to give those who suffer racism legal recourse. The quantitative argument is just not credible.

At the inquest of Harinder Veriah, a 33-year-old lawyer, last month, her widower Martin Jacques recounted what she said to him when he asked how well she was cared for in hospital, shortly before she died. ‘I am at the bottom of the pile here . . . I am the only Indian here, everyone else is Chinese.’ The hospital published a statement denying racism.

If the Government has the courage, it should ask the dark-skinned ethnic minorities what they have to live through on a daily basis.

– Christine Loh heads a non-profit think tank and is a former legislator