When I was asked to contribute an article for Close Up on anything other than my usual topics, two incidents came to mind.
In 2000, while discussing whether I should run in the Legislative Council by-election, veteran politician Lee Wing-tat said to me: Your chances are slim, you may be well known in the legal circle, but to ordinary people, you are not sufficiently three-dimensional. He meant that they knew little about my person, only my work, and that was not sufficient for winning an election. History proved him wrong.
The other incident happened recently. Qiao Xiaoyang, the deputy secretary-general of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, was explaining to a group of lawyers the evils of universal suffrage. He said politicians have to pander to public demand. He gave the example of Lien Chan, head of the Kuomintang, a well-respected man, who, when he appeared on a television show, was asked the colour of his underpants.
To what extent should public figures reveal their personal life? The public has a right to expect the person to be an upstanding citizen. But does it mean revealing all aspects of their personal life?
I am often asked to name my favourite food, restaurant, designer label, and other trivia. At times, the reporter says that if I do not oblige, she will be given a hard time by her boss. It is difficult to say no, but a line (even though rather a blurry one) has to be drawn somewhere.
There is obviously a market for such information. Recently, the volunteers helping the Article 45 Concern Group to set up a web radio station – of which I have the dubious distinction of being station master – were brainstorming for ideas to improve our audience rating. They advised that we should not be hard-selling our mission – voter registration and universal suffrage – all the time. To get young net surfers interested, I should talk about my hobbies and perhaps even my love life (which is a pool of still water, least likely to increase audience ratings).
Public figures are asked to endorse all sorts of things, from a healthy lifestyle to a harmonious family relationship. Some politicians may think that what they actually say and is printed on the front pages of local newspapers is not as important as how they are portrayed in the entertainment pages inside.
So, does universal suffrage really mean that politicians have to pander to the wishes of the electorate to the extent of revealing the colour of their underwear? Unfortunately, I do not know how Mr Lien dealt with the question. If he was able to maintain the dignity of his office, it would add to the public’s respect for him.
The electorate may enjoy such frivolities, but that does not mean they do not care about the main topic. They do not mix the priority issues with the frills. Of course, such frills make the politician more human, or three-dimensional, as Mr Lee puts it. But I have every faith that people will ultimately be looking for the core substance; the ability to lead. That is why they will always vote for someone they can look up to, not someone who panders to their every whim. There is little evidence that universal suffrage will lead to popularism, especially for an advanced and educated society like Hong Kong. While it is true that universal suffrage will not guarantee the perfect or the best person for the job, having a say in choosing your own leader is surely better than having one thrust upon you.