Mobilising Public Opinion outside LegCo
Ms Christine Loh, former legislator, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 12 July 2000. This is a summary of her remarks.
Although she was retiring from LegCo, Ms Loh said she was not retiring from politics. Ms Loh described the executive branch and LegCo as formal big "P" politics. There was also politics with a small "p", which comprised the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the general public. After nearly 9 years in big "P" politics, she was simply crossing the road to the side of the small "p".
However, Ms Loh's ambitions were undiminshed. She believed that a new political culture was developing in Hong Kong. At the same time, there was a surge of political change in the region where the quality of governance had become increasingly identified as crucial to a society's success. Although formal political change was slow in Hong Kong, she believed that it would come in the big "P" arena sooner or later. In the mean time, there was much that could be done in small "p" politics since efforts in that area could expedite formal political reform, and in any event, it was crucial for Hong Kong to envigorate the building of civil society.
Ms Loh is asked often to explain Hong Kong political system and she realized that the more people understood, the more they were appalled by the inherent unfairness of it.
Ms Loh was asked whether Hong Kong people were interested in politics, particularly in view of the low turn out voter rate for the Election Committee on 9 July. Ms Loh thought that people felt alienated by the EC election. Most people didn't understand how it worked and it only involved a small section of the community. While EC seats would disappear by the 2004 LegCo election, there would still be 30 functional constituency seats, which Ms Loh felt was equally alienating of the general public. Ms Loh's strategy was to shine as much light on the EC and FC systems as possible. She had been asked often to explain Hong Kong political system and she realized that the more people understood, the more they were appalled by the inherent unfairness of it. She believed that the systems would disappear sooner rather than later under intense light and public scrutiny.
As such, Ms Loh wanted to become more active in stimulating small "p" politics. Her experience over the last 9 years had given her the insight that ordinary people can be and want to be engaged in public affairs discussions and decision-making. That experience was reinforced by her weekly e-Newsletter, which she has been publishing since 1998. She found that people wanted accurate information on issues they cared about. People wanted information in "bite sizes" so that they could grasp the essential elements in a few minutes. Ms Loh believed that people had a thirst to understand and saw it as a part of her job to help people to do so.
Once people got interested, they were prepared to be engaged. She frequently received responses to her e-Newsletters and also requests for what direct action ordinary citizens could take up. Her experience gave her the idea to develop a special bilingual public information and service Internet web site so that people could find out how the government and public bodies worked, and how to navigate them. However, beyond broadcasting information, the site would also have an on-line citizens advice service so that people could request help by simply sending an email.
The project was called the Civic Exchange. The pilot site would concentrate on environmental issues, since Ms Loh was well known in that area. Take the topic of smoky vehicles. Ms Loh said that she received hundreds of similar requests for information. The web site would provide everything one would want to know in a easily digestible, succinct, manner.
The government had its own sites, which in Ms Loh's opinion were not always helpful to someone who wanted to find out who was responsible for a particular area of policy and how to engage that person or unit in constructive dialogue. Ms Loh recalled a constituent who was a restauranteur. The road outside the restaurant was steep and people frequently slipped on rainy days. Then on one day, someone slipped and died. The restauranteur spent weeks trying to get someone from the government to improve the road to prevent accidents. In the end, the restauranteur came to Ms Loh for help, having been defeated by the bureaucracy. Ms Loh realized from doing constituency cases that what was needed was a way to help people to help themselves because there would never be enough elected representatives to do everything that needed doing. She realized that if she could help people to understand who was responsible for what within the government and how to deal with the bureaucracy, people would become more effective and therefore more empowered.
The Civic Exchange site, however, would not compete with the govenment-to-citizen business sites, such as those renewing licences, paying bills etc. Its goal was directed at educating citizens about how to engage the public sector on public issues. It could even tell people what they should do if they wanted to organize a legal public demonstration (Ms Loh had been asked such a question by disgruntled constituents).
Ms Loh hoped that the pilot site would be ready by March 2001. Perhaps the site, if successful, could one day be Hong Kong's politics portal. If the pilot was found useful, she hoped to be able to raise substantial funding for a comprehensive public service site.
The Civic Exchange would also have a research arm. She said that Hong Kong did not have a tradition of public policy research. While Hong Kong had many capable people, their talents had not been directed at thinking about solutions in public policy. Public policy was different from pure academic research. It needed a grounding in how politics worked, including the laying out of options with cost-benefit analysis for each of them.
Ms Loh's own background was diverse. She had studied law and had a Masters Degree in Chinese and Comparative Law. She had been a businesswoman for 15 years and her formal political career spanned nearly a decade. She had had extensive media exposure, including anchoring radio public affairs programmes. She had also participated actively in a number of NGOs. She felt that her experience gave her what was necessary to articulate practical policy recommendations. It was also what she liked doing most.
The Civic Exchange, as Ms Loh envisioned it, would provide a "parking" space arrangement for "brain power". Experts in many fields could work with the organization as full-time, part-time or occasional thinkers. The Civic Exchange would be a "virtual" think thank, enabling experts to work on a paid or voluntary basis and in a multi-disciplinary manner. The fruits of its work would be promoted to government officials, politicians, businessmen and other opinions makers and shapers. The Civic Exchange would be a non-profit and an independent enterprise. Ms Loh believed that she could be an effective behind the scene lobbyist.
Working from that vantage point appealed to Ms Loh after so many years in big "P" politics, where fighting for sound bites and being able to claim victories were the daily fodder of formal political life. As a think tank worker, she could continue to work on issues she cared most about, such as the environment, and be able to cooperate with many more people. She saw her new role as a thinker, advocate and facilitator for social change.
To interest people in politics one had to find ways to help people, see how political decisions impacted their daily lives.
How would she obtain funding? Ms Loh would fund herself initially with her own resources. By using resources from paid private work - such as writing analysis pieces - she would fund her time to do public work. She has also had offers of support for a free pied a terre space in Central, as well as volunteer time from a whole variety of highly qualified people. If the Civic Exchange proved successful and if funds could be raised or its "thinking" and solutions-oriented work, then it might be time to actually pay rent for a more formal office space and hire full time staff. She was starting small but thinking big.
What about people not hooked up to the Internet? Firstly, more and more people would get on-line. The Internet would become an increasingly common tool. Secondly, it was important to ensure that the socially and economically disadvantaged, including the disabled, were e-enabled as well. She recalled an experiment in Denmark where poor families were given computers by the government. Hong Kong could consider doing the same. What would then be needed was a program to ensure the disadvantaged were able to access help on how to use the Internet. That was where students helpers would be useful.
Ms Loh was also asked how the professional and business classes could be roused to see the importance of participating in politics, including standing for election. She pointed out the big "R" - repetition. Many people still did not see the importance of politics (i.e. the public decision-making process). To interest people, one had to find ways to interest and engage them and help people see how political decisions impacted their daily lives. Hong Kong needed to give itself good civic lessons. That was what the Civic Exchange intended to help promote.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.