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Humour can often win over a difficult audience – a point that is lost on many of our political leaders, writes Stephan Engel

Lighten up


n a few weeks, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will deliver his annual policy address to the Legislative Council. While his speech covering the latest government plans and initiatives will be new, in terms of content, the style of its delivery will be exactly the same as in previous years. With all the charm of a North Korean television presenter, Mr Tsang will read the text straight from a piece of paper placed in front of him. No sudden smile will brighten up his otherwise monotonous facial expression. Occasionally he will look up, stony-faced, his lips firmly pressed together, nervously scanning the ranks of the chamber. There won’t be a single joke, a witty remark or an intelligent play on words spicing up his oratory. Sentence after sentence, he will subject his audience to more than 10,000 words of dull and uninspiring language. Welcome to Hong Kong politics, where the boring people rule. It is a sad fact that, despite the openness of our society, our freedom of speech and

Displaying a sense of humour is always a sign of confidence and that the speaker is at ease with the topic and audience

............................................................... an increasingly dynamic political process, our local politicians and officials seem to be seriously orally challenged. Whenever speaking in public, they almost completely miss the light touch, rarely displaying any charm, emotion or sense of humour. I often wondered if the problem lies in the translations. As a foreigner, I am entirely dependent on the English versions of our leaders’ speeches. Perhaps in their native tongue, Hong Kong’s political leaders are able to produce the humour, wit and inspiration I so sorely miss? I therefore asked my Chinese wife, but she quickly disappointed me. Apart from the occasional slang, which is difficult to translate, the Cantonese and English versions are essentially the same. Political-speaking skills are always best displayed in a debating environment or a discussion. It is true that Legco has recently become a rather lively place compared with that in the colonial days.

Arguments between members and the government are now traded in a forceful, aggressive and sometimes even insulting way. Rice bowls are smashed in front of the podium, banners theatrically unfolded and food items thrown across the chamber. Unfortunately, while there is no shortage of bad manners, memorable political speeches are still in very short supply. It is common knowledge among communication experts that a dose of humour in a speech enhances its delivery. People tend to remember arguments much better if they are presented in an amusing way instead of just plain language. An unexpected joke can break the ice with a critical or hostile audience. Humour, used appropriately, can sometimes even win people’s hearts and minds. Business leaders use this method often, as do many politicians, especially when campaigning for votes. In fact, displaying a sense of humour is always a sign of confidence and shows that the speaker is at ease with the topic and the audience. That’s why unelected heads of state rarely make jokes in public – which might partly explain the problem in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong’s political system gradually evolves towards more democracy, our emerging political class needs to seriously ask itself if it is ready for the challenge. Essential to a successful politician is the ability to connect with an audience through the medium of speech. People’s approval or disapproval of political leaders is therefore heavily influenced by what they hear from them. In politics, words are as vital as actions. However, good public speaking is not about putting style over substance. An empty speech delivered with great eloquence is a pointless exercise. At the same time, an important argument delivered in an articulate way will stick in people’s minds. Developing a good political speech is like building a bridge over a river. It starts

Frank Ching

The bottom line


he 13th round of border negotiations between China and India was held in New Delhi earlier this month and, despite the “cordial and friendly atmosphere”, there was no breakthrough on the disputed frontier. Actually, progress on the issue is hampered, as both sides have individuals and groups ready to denounce them if they give up an inch of their claims. Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper reported before the talks that Beijing’s bottom line was just to get 28 per cent of the disputed area. The Foreign Ministry immediately issued a statement calling the report “groundless”, although a spokesperson said that “in the spirit of mutual understanding … China is willing to work with India to seek a fair and mutually acceptable resolution”. On the Indian side, there are hawks aplenty, both in the government and media. In May, Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, head of the Indian Air Force, described China as a “greater threat” than Pakistan, a comment that he later rescinded. Some sections of the Indian media, too, regularly accuse Chinese troops of territorial incursions. When such charges arise, it is often difficult to say who is right or wrong, since the border has never been delineated. There is the Line of Actual Control, but even that has never been defined by the two countries, so each side may have its own understanding of where it actually lies. When accusations of violation of the line of control arise from one side, the other often indignantly denies such charges. So any move to get agreement on the line of control along the disputed border would, in itself, constitute substantial progress. An exchange of maps showing how each side views the Line of Actual Control would be a major step towards preventing the eruption of border incidents. This can be done without prejudice to either side’s territorial claims. Both countries, of course, realise that there is little political room for manoeuvre. No doubt, for this reason, the border talks this time included other issues as well, including discussion of the two countries’ overall relationship, dubbed the strategic and co-operative partnership, and regional and international issues. The trade relationship is developing nicely, with the value of trade rising 35 per cent in 2008, to ...................................... US$51.7 billion. The target is for trade to reach US$60 billion in 2010. A very serious issue, but one which has not been taken seriously enough up to now, is water. The shortage of water is a problem in both India and China and, because Beijing is diverting rivers that flow from Tibet , this may have a serious impact on India. Indeed, Tibet is the source of most major Indian rivers, including two of the main tributaries of the Ganges. China is also considering diverting the Brahmaputra, known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, so that it will flow into the parched Yellow River. Such an act could have a devastating impact on both India and Bangladesh. The recent agreement by India and China to co-operate in monitoring the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas is a positive step on the part of the two countries. To have a truly strategic partnership, Beijing and New Delhi need to have a much more profound understanding of each other’s needs and concerns. The regular high-level meetings that have marked the relationship in recent years must continue. The approach of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations should also be used to provide impetus to the relationship. Ultimately, there must be a higher level of trust between the two sides. This can only be fostered through closer relations between the two peoples, but that is unlikely unless the two governments can report progress in the political relationship. While other issues can play a role in improving or worsening the relationship, ultimately there can be no overall progress until the central issue – the territorial dispute – is resolved. Freezing the border dispute while making progress in other areas has worked so far but, ultimately, a resolution of the border dispute is necessary if there is to be lasting friendship and co-operation.

There can be no overall progress until the [ChinaIndia border] dispute is resolved

with considering the nature of the audience and then developing a plan to reach across. The intention to make a strong connection has to be part of the overall concept from the very beginning. Just creating good content is not sufficient. That’s where most speakers fail. It is finally time for Hong Kong’s

politicians and leaders to take public speaking more seriously and invest in their communication skills. The audience is getting impatient.

............................................................... Stephan Engel is an independent public affairs and communications consultant based in Hong Kong

................................................................................................. Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator

Other Voices In the midst of a phantom recovery? ...................................................... Nouriel Roubini Where is the American and global economy heading? Last year, one camp argued that the recession in the US would be V-shaped – short and shallow. Others, including me, argued that, given the excesses of private-sector leverage, this would be a U-shaped recession – long and deep. Today, 20 months into the US recession – a recession that became global in the summer of 2008 with a massive recoupling – the V-shaped, decoupling view is out the window. Today’s consensus among economists is that the recession is already over, that the US and global economy will rapidly return to growth, with no risk of a relapse. This new consensus could be as wrong now as the defenders of the V-shaped scenario were. Data from the US – rising unemployment, falling household consumption, still declining industrial production and a weak housing market – suggest that America’s recession is not over yet. An analysis of other advanced economies suggests that, as in the US, the bottom is close but has not been reached. Growth in the advanced economies is likely to remain anaemic for at least a couple of years, for a number of reasons. The first is that households need to deleverage and save more, which will constrain consumption for years. Second, the financial system is severely damaged. Lack of robust credit growth will hamper private consumption and investment spending. Third, the corporate sector faces a glut of capacity, and a weak

recovery of profitability is likely. Businesses are not likely to increase capital spending. Fourth, the re-leveraging of the public sector through large fiscal deficits and debt accumulation risks crowding out a recovery in privatesector spending. Domestic private demand, especially consumption, is now weak or falling in overspending countries (including the US, Britain and Australia) while not increasing fast enough in oversaving countries (such as China and Germany). Thus, there is a global slackening of aggregate demand relative to the glut of supply capacity. There are two reasons to fear a double-dip recession. First, the exit strategy from monetary and fiscal easing could be botched: if policymakers take their fiscal deficits seriously and raise taxes, reduce spending and mop up excess liquidity, they could undermine the already weak recovery; if they maintain large budget deficits and continue to monetise them, at some point long-term government bond yields will rise, and the recovery will be crowded out. Second, oil, energy and food prices may be rising faster than economic fundamentals warrant, and could be driven higher by the wall of liquidity chasing assets, as well as by speculative demand. The recent market rallies in stocks, commodities and credit may have got ahead of improvements in the real economy. If so, a correction cannot be too far behind.

...................................................... Nouriel Roubini is chairman of Roubini Global Economics and professor at the Stern School of Business, New York University

Failing the nine steps to effective policymaking

An engaging Asian strategy for Iran ...................................................... Kishore Mahbubani

...................................................... Joseph Wong The government has made it clear that the pilot scheme to conduct drug tests on secondary-school students in Tai Po will proceed in December, despite the concerns of various groups. But something must have gone wrong in the policymaking process when those who expressed concern included Bishop John Tong Hon, of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, which is a large school sponsor, and the privacy commissioner for personal data, Roderick Woo Bun. As the chief executive has likened the fight against youth drug abuse to an all-out war involving the whole community, this is a timely reminder that the government should get its act together and do a better job. Our government can learn some useful lessons from Britain. As part of its Modernising Government initiative, launched in 1999, the British government developed a professional policymaking model for officials that features nine key principles. According to the model, a policy under development: ● clearly defines outcomes, taking into account the likely effect and impact of the policy in the future five to 10 years and beyond; ● takes full account of the national and international situation; ● takes a holistic view looking beyond institutional boundaries to the government’s strategic objectives; ● is flexible and innovative, willing to question established ways of dealing with things and encourage new and creative ideas; ● uses the best available evidence from a wide range of sources; ● constantly reviews existing policy

to ensure it is really dealing with problems it was designed to solve without having unintended detrimental effects elsewhere; ● is fair to all people directly or indirectly affected by it and takes account of its impact more generally; ● involves all key stakeholders at an early stage and throughout its development; and ● learns from experience what works and what doesn’t through systematic evaluation. If we apply the above model to the school drug testing scheme, there are some glaring omissions. For example, has the government clearly de-

This is a timely reminder that the government should get its act together and do a better job

...................................................... fined the outcomes of the pilot scheme? Why did it not involve the privacy commissioner, an important stakeholder, in the early consultation? Some international schools in Hong Kong have been conducting drug tests on students for many years. Why did the government not study their experience more closely and solicit their help? As the chief executive has said, drug testing is only one aspect of the war against drugs. Other areas include mobilising the whole community, garnering support of various stakeholders in the districts, enforcement against drug traffickers, and

rehabilitation of drug takers. The adverse public reaction towards school drug testing will be a blessing in disguise if it helps officials improve and fine-tune the details of the Tai Po scheme. As a former civil servant and minister, I readily accept that, in policymaking, the government faces many constraints. Hence, the British model remains a reference. But increasing globalisation and civil engagement demand that governments adopt a more systematic and professional approach in policymaking to win public support and achieve the desired results. Based on overseas experience, our war against youth drug abuse will have to be fought on many fronts with the full support of the community. Innovative ideas, systematic evaluations and continuous improvements should become an integral part of the strategy that may stretch on for years. When the chief executive delivers his next policy address, in October, he should lay out a comprehensive plan with specific proposals and clearly defined outcomes that have taken into account the views and aspirations of all stakeholders.

...................................................... Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong Contact us Agree or disagree with the opinions on this page? Write to us at If you have an idea for an opinion article, e-mail it to

When the ongoing turmoil surrounding the Iranian elections finally ends, the West is likely to walk away with a simple black and white judgment: the bad guys won. Of course, the West did the right thing by supporting the good guys, the street demonstrators. Hence, the West need not bear any responsibility for the outcome. The tragedy of such thinking is that it does not allow for any moral and political complexity or nuance, yet that is exactly what will be needed if the many problems surrounding Iran are to be resolved. Moreover, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remaining as Iran’s president, the West will once again resort to its usual method of dealing with unfriendly regimes: impose more sanctions. But this would lead to an even greater tragedy. The only clear lesson to emerge from Iran’s disputed presidential election is that the country has a vibrant and indeed dynamic civil society. Many brave Iranians were prepared to risk their lives to defend their beliefs. Their ability to do so confirms that Iran is not a closed totalitarian state like North Korea. Despite many years of rule by a theocratic establishment (or perhaps because of it), Iranian minds remain open and engaged. So there is real hope that Iran can change, modernise and open up, as the rest of Asia has. The only viable long-term strategy is to stop trying to isolate Iran and instead nudge Iranians into engaging more with modern Asia. In the Iranian worldview, there are three great ancient Asian civilisations: Chinese, Indian and

Persian (with Persia being the greatest). Iranians expect to perform on a par with China and India. So, while Western hectoring of Iran will not work, when Iranians see their society falling far behind China and India as those countries open up to the world, they may become motivated to reconsider their path. Similarly, the West should find ways to re-engage with Iranian society, a major obstacle to which is the absence of diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. US foreign policy assumes that diplomatic relations with Iran are somehow an act of approval. But the purpose of diplomacy is to enable relations between adversaries, not friends. The US might also learn from other examples. Many Americans applauded Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for his political courage in visiting Jerusalem three decades ago – a decision for which he ultimately paid with his life − even though the vast majority of Egyptians strongly disapproved. In engaging Iran, the West should ignore the nature of its regime. It is almost impossible for any outsider to understand Iran’s real internal political dynamics. What we do know with certainty is that the regime is divided. These divisions will allow new forces to emerge in Iranian society; all means should be found to reach out to them. If the West persists with its sanctions, it will not do any good. It will only make Western leaders feel good. But what is more important: doing good or feeling good?

...................................................... Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Copyright: Project Syndicate

Lighten up!  
Lighten up!  

Op-ed published in the South China Morning Post ( Hong Kong) on 19th August 2009.