29/12/00 - South China Morning Post

The death of a young mother has reaffirmed an anti-racism group’s determination to continue with its work

THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be an article about the decline of a recently formed organisation which wanted racial discrimination outlawed in Hong Kong.

The group, Hong Kong Against Racial Discrimination (Hard), was on the verge of collapse just last month, its members having failed to hold a monthly meeting since February.

This story was going to convey the founders’ frustration and feeling of helplessness at the Government’s intransigence on the issue, refusing to make discrimination on the grounds of race illegal. It was going to trace the death of Hard.

But one month ago, something terrible happened which outraged its members and brought them renewed strength in their fight against racism. They read about the case of Harinder Veriah, a 33-year-old Malaysian with an ethnic-Indian background, who died in Ruttonjee Hospital after an epileptic fit. During the inquest, her grieving husband, Martin Jacques, said she had not received proper treatment and Veriah – the mother of a two-year-old boy – had complained of being ‘at the bottom of the pile here’ because of her race.

Now, organisations are reporting unofficial whispers from government circles that the time might be ripe – amid a flurry of United Nations delegations visiting the SAR and a global conference on racism to be held in 2001 – for a renewed lobbying effort to secure a breakthrough. The battle to have legislation introduced prohibiting racial discrimination is back on.

Jacques said he was ‘very glad’ Hard was able to draw some inspiration from his wife’s case and added that he would feel encouraged if the Government were to introduce legislation against racism. ‘But if Hong Kong wants to be regarded as a civilised society, legislation is not the end point but a starting point,’ he said.

Any hopes must be tempered by realism, however, as the Government has steadfastly refused to move on the issue in the two years since Hard was formed. It was in the debate after the coroner’s ruling last month on Veriah’s death that acting Home Affairs Secretary Leo Kwan Wing-wah said racism was not a ‘significant problem’ in Hong Kong.

The coroner, Andrew Chan Hing-wai, returning a verdict of death by natural causes, found that Veriah was not ill-treated and Ruttonjee Hospital, named after a philanthropic ethnic-Indian businessman, denied she was discriminated against by its Chinese staff.

Nevertheless, her death had a profound impact on those campaigners who had all but given up their fight against discrimination.

‘We have had a renewed effort. Her death has focused the minds of our members,’ said barrister Vandana Rajwani, a founding member of the body, which is a coalition of 14 non-governmental organisations ranging from groups representing domestic helpers and defenders of human rights to a collection of young ethnic-Indian professionals.

Although there has been no official substantiation of Jacques’ claims of discrimination, Ms Rajwani said it was disturbing enough that the woman’s husband was left with the impression his wife was a victim of racism.

‘If there is to be any benefit from the death of a young woman and mother, it is to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again. I don’t know whether it happens frequently. The fact that there was a risk of discrimination is enough for us to start working again.’

Although no meetings were held since February, some of its members kept in touch by electronic mail, and the death of Veriah spurred them back into action, Ms Rajwani said. They would hold the next meeting in January.

Another core member of the group, Ravi Gidumal, said Veriah’s death and her husband’s outspokenness on the issue had been a turning point for Hard. ‘Certainly, that has opened the doors to things being done.’

Hard was formed in 1998 in the wake of the handover and the successful campaign which lobbied the British Government to grant citizenship to ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.

The campaign was waged mostly by the Indian Resources Group, comprising young professionals who were from ethnic-Indian families, were born in Hong Kong and who did not have full British or Chinese citizenship. They viewed the 1997 handover nervously because of their uncertain status and feared being driven out under Chinese rule.

What was left mostly unsaid in the campaign was the discrimination by local Chinese these descendants of Indians had felt during their upbringings in Hong Kong. Many feared the bad sentiment could worsen after the handover.

‘When we formed we were basically on a high after having successfully challenged the former colonial government,’ Ms Rajwani said. ‘It gave us a lot of confidence, and we felt we had been instrumental in changing conditions for young Indian professionals. We thought we could do the same for others.’

But their new challenge was very different from the campaign to win British citizenship for ethnic minorities. That campaign had a deadline – July 1, 1997 – and had attracted a large amount of interest from the international and British media, which helped increase the pressure on decision-makers in London, she said.

The group started its work by compiling cases of racial discrimination. There were plenty of examples, Ms Rajwani said, and they felt passionate about the issue. ‘The name in itself was symbolic. We wanted to take a hard stance.’

A crackdown on Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi visitors early last year, which cut their visa-free access from three months to two weeks, brought protests from the Indian community and consulate. The Immigration Department denied any discrimination and insisted many South Asian visitors used false documents or posed as genuine visitors, only to overstay.

Immigration officers also came under fire when it was revealed they were stopping female Thai tourists and asking whether they were involved in prostitution. Customs officers were criticised for targeting Nepalese for body searches at the airport, but they claimed searches and urine tests were conducted according to nationality and whether the country was a known source of drugs.

The Sunday Morning Post reported in 1998 that some Wan Chai bars were charging Indian and Chinese customers for entry while Westerners were admitted for free.

The anti-racism coalition also investigated the ways in which children of ethnic minorities – usually Indian or Pakistani – were disadvantaged by having to attend schools where teaching was conducted in Chinese, not their mother tongue.

The initial blaze of publicity which surrounded the formation of Hard in 1998 also caused problems, according to Ms Rajwani. Many people came forward with stories of discrimination. Groups also emerged with different agendas and backgrounds, started attending meetings and suddenly Hard was losing its focus, she said.

Bills introduced by legislators to outlaw racism – bringing it in line with discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability or family status – have been repeatedly rejected.

The Home Affairs Bureau has long argued that legislation was not necessary, claiming the problem was not significant and that education was the best way to prevent racism. Ms Rajwani said the Government’s reluctance to give any ground on the issue had demoralised group members.

The frustration is evident for Mr Gidumal, a key player in the successful campaign for British citizenship, who said: ‘From my own personal perspective, it’s not intransigence but the petty, ignorant approach the Government has taken to this whole thing.’

An example was the Home Affairs Bureau’s recent claim that racism was not a ‘significant problem’. ‘If you refuse to see that anything exists, how can you do anything about it?’ asked Mr Gidumal.

Hard’s resurrection is timely. Racism is likely to come under the spotlight internationally next year. United Nations representatives are expected to visit Hong Kong to report on its commitment to economic, cultural and social rights, and another delegation will investigate its respect for human rights. A global conference on racism is also expected to be held in South Africa in September next year, with the Hong Kong Government likely to send a delegation.

With the emphasis on racial discrimination, Ms Rajwani said, ‘there have been some unofficial indications that the time is right’ for a fresh push on the need for legislation in Hong Kong.

A Home Affairs Bureau spokesman said the Government was opposed to all forms of discrimination and it believed racism was more effectively addressed through education and administrative means than legislation. The Bill of Rights Ordinance also provided protection for individuals against racial discrimination, he said. Laws against racism had been enacted overseas in other countries where it was a bigger and more serious problem than in Hong Kong.

Another factor which has boosted hopes of activists for a change in policy is the retirement of former Home Affairs secretary, David Lan Hong-tsung, who was believed to have been opposed to legislating against racial discrimination. He has been replaced by Lam Woon-kwong.

By Glenn Schloss