Law Association, HKUSU High Table Speech

Law Association, HKUSU
High Table Speech, 12 April 2001


The organizers want me to speak about how to uphold personal values and integrity in time of change. In giving me this question to address, they cannot be thinking about changing from Cafe de Coral to Maxim¡¦s Fast Food for meals or changing from Lui Che Wo Law Library to the Main Library as the place to study for your examinations.

The question presupposes the change being talked about here forces one to adopt values that are inconsistent with long-held values. And, it further assumes that if one sails with the wind by adopting the new values, one will necessarily be sacrificing one¡¦s integrity. Fortunately, not every change challenges long-held values and puts one¡¦s integrity to the test.

I don¡¦t know whether changing your boy friend qualifies. I suppose it doesn¡¦t. The classic setting for discussion of the question posed for me tonight will be something like this:

You were brought up to believe in certain moral or professional standards of behaviour, legal values and values of justice and democracy and the inherent and inalienable rights of man. There is a recent change in the governance of the place and the new regime harbours values and ideologies very different from those you have learnt to believe in and treasure in the past. Do you then abandon the values and ideologies you hold dear to your heart and quickly adapt to those of the new regime? Or, do you want to continue to defend the principles you believe in; even those may not be favoured by the ones who are in power?

Different people will react differently in the given scenario.

But, before I go on to discuss what the different reactions can be, I must warn you to be more alert to changes taking place around you. If you are slow to even realize that changes are happening, then you may be depriving yourself of a conscious choice of how to react.

Change is not always sudden and dramatic, and the changes that can do the most harm are those that we don¡¦t see coming. Consider the story of the frog that was dropped into a pan of hot water. The frog immediately reacted to the heat by jumping out of the pen. Another frog was put into a pan of cold water on a stove. The burner beneath the pan was turned on low, and then the heat was gradually increased so that temperature of the water rose only a degree at a time. Change was occurring, but because it was gradual the frog accepted it and stayed in the pan and was boiled. In a way, we are all in the same pan. We react immediately to dramatic changes, but we run the risk of getting cooked if we fail to notice the little, slow changes occurring around us.

Now, I shall come back to the different reactions, if I may. Discounting the majority who are indifferent, people fall largely into three categories.

Some adapt to the new values and ideologies at once. They all of a sudden realize now that they have been wrong in the past in holding the values and ideologies they did. Of course, such realizations may represent genuine dawning to past errors by some or simply hypnotism practised on themselves by others.

Some cannot live with things in the new order and choose to leave the scene all together.

Others persist in what they believe to be the right thing to do and contribute to upholding the values and ideologies they have always treasured and believed to be for the good of the people with whom and the place in which they have been brought up.

I think the organizers want me to make a few observations on what one can do if one finds oneself fall into the last category of beings. I shall be too happy to oblige.

If you find yourself in this last category, the first thing I would advise you do is to satisfy yourself that your insistence on adhering to the old values stands to reason. It is not because of your being one of those people who hate any change that doesn¡¦t jingle in their pockets. It is not because of any selfish consideration that you are resisting changes for the better.

Having satisfied yourself that you have good reason to be insistent, you need then to find mutual support in friends and others who think like you. To be able to feel that you are not alone is the consolation you need from time to time.

Even with the support of people who share the same values, you cannot help to feel lonely at times when the majority of the people around you continue to bury themselves in their own work and apparently care about nothing but themselves. You doubt whether your time could have been better spent. It may help at such times for you to remind yourself that the Chinese expects highly of scholars. Scholars are well educated people who have the vision of what is good for his fellowmen and possess the sense of mission to implement what they think is right. As scholars, we should have that scholarly personality. You do not want to look back after 10 years and regret over the prospects of things that may have been different had you acted in time. It is always better to make timely efforts and fail than regretting in the future over things that could have been done but undone.

And, you will be surprised that people constituting the apparently indifferent majority are not without views. They simply refuse to speak up for one reason or another. If you have spoken their minds, they are never shy to express their gratitude for your having done so.

Mind you, if yours is a principled approach and you have demonstrated that you can argue in support of what you believe to be right with good reasons and logic, even people who have to be perceived to take a view different from yours because of their political affiliation or office will respect you in their hearts, even if they cannot do so with their mouths.

As I am talking to law students, I think I shall conclude on what you can do for Hong Kong in this time of change. "One Country, Two Systems" is a novel idea and many uncharted territories will have to be visited during the course of its implementation. Hong Kong has benefited from the rule of law and the proper administration of justice in the past over 100 years. But, the irony is the rule of law as an institution imported from England has not really taken root in Hong Kong. After HKSAR has rejoined the motherland in 1997, some leftist sectors of our society have brought immense pressure to bear on the system that most of us have taken for granted. They start to query whether there has been "judicial activism" being practised in our courts. They begin to openly bring our judges into public scandal, odium and contempt. In short, they do not want the Rule of Law as an institution that we know of to continue.

Legal values, moral standards of behaviour and inherent and inalienable human rights are constantly under threat. We cannot just count on the Department of Justice or the Judiciary to defend those values. We all have our parts to play. Law students of today are tomorrow¡¦s leaders of the profession to whom the baton will be passed on. You should never be slow to take on the responsibilities.

The Mainland has had only just over 20 years since 1979 to rebuild her legal system and I certainly commend her for what has so far been accomplished. With her accession to WTO and becoming part of the international business community, I think the rule of law may eventually prevail over the Mainland after 2 to 3 generations of lawyers.

Ladies and Gentlemen: It will be farcical for the Mainland to have the Rule of Law after three decades while the same institution has dwindled in the HKSAR. Please remember: you have your part to play.

I think I have earned my dinner.

Before I sit down, may I wish you all a happy Easter Season. Thank you.