Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why there’s no safe amount of lead in tap water in Hong Kong, or anywhere

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

James Nickum

James Nickum says the WHO standard is outdated, and we need to work to avoid a recurrence of the contamination at Hong Kong housing estates

It has been nearly a year since four out of 30 samples of drinking water in the Kai Ching Estate were found to have levels of lead in excess of the World Health Organisation standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb). The highest was 23ppb.

This revelation set off a circular firing squad of accusations and investigations centring on how lead solder, which has long been banned, found its way into the estate’s water pipes. Terms such as “scare”, “scandal”, “dangerous”, “crisis” and “toxic” filled the media and the speeches of politicians.

The government set up three task forces and the Water Services Department took thousands of samples at both “affected” estates and “unaffected” ones. On May 11, one of those task forces, the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water, submitted its report to the chief executive. The government is now mulling over the results.

What tends to get ignored in all this hullabaloo is the magic number of 10ppb. Where did the WHO get this figure? What does it mean? Is 11ppb a scandalous figure? Is 9ppb safe? The answer in both cases would seem to be “no”.

Hong Kong is not Flint, Michigan, where some of America’s poorest people paid one of the highest rates in the country for water that, in some cases, exceeded the levels set for toxic waste (5,000ppb). It is also not the China on the other side of the border, where a 1984 WHO standard of 50ppb is still used.

It is not the US, where users are urged to take action if they discover 15ppb in their drinking water. If it is from their own pipes after untainted water is supplied from the mains, it is up to them to fix it, not the water agency. Over 40 million Americans are estimated to drink levels higher than this. Perhaps that explains the Donald Trump phenomenon.

Compared to a large part of the world, then, people in Hong Kong are actually more likely to drink tap water that is relatively free of lead. So is there cause for worry? Well, for many people, unfortunately yes, but probably not a lot.

The WHO relies on an expert committee, which goes by the acronym of Jecfa, to survey the current state of scientific knowledge regarding possible hazards to health. In 1986, the committee proposed a “provisional tolerable weekly intake” of 25ppb based on studies of infants that indicated they did not retain lead at levels lower than that. This works out to 10ppb for a 5kg bottle-fed infant drinking 0.75 litres of water per day, with the additional assumption that it receives half of its lead intake from somewhere else, such as old lead paint.

Since those other sources of lead have become less common in the past 30 years, and the standards were set for the most vulnerable in the population, 10ppb would seem to be an overly cautious standard. Even doubling that should not be a matter of great concern, possibly even for the most vulnerable populations.

Unfortunately, as the amount of lead we are exposed to has declined, the results from more recent scientific studies are far from reassuring. Lead in any amount appears to affect health to some extent.

Newer epidemiological studies reviewed by Jecfa in 2011 found that there are no safe levels. The old tolerable intake is not really tolerable. It is associated with a decrease of at least three IQ points in children and an increase in systolic blood pressure of three points in adults.

The WHO has kept the standard at 10ppb on practical grounds, not for reasons of health. There is little magic in this number. The only good lead in tap water is no lead. When it is detected at any level – but particularly over 5ppb – the cause should be determined and, to the extent possible, fixed.
In Hong Kong, the contamination came from the use of cheap but prohibited lead solder in the pipes

In Hong Kong, it has already been determined that the contamination came from the use of cheap but prohibited lead solder in the pipes of the estates. This all needs to be replaced, preferably by those who put it there, and oversight systems put in place to prevent a recurrence.

Life is filled with risks, some of which, like eating fast food or walking across a busy street, are our choice. Others, like the air we breathe or the water from the tap of a housing estate, are not. Some risks we know about and others we don’t.

Lead is a known health risk; what was not known was that it is in Hong Kong’s tap water when it should not have been. Now we know. It should not happen again. Think how smart and heart-healthy those of us who were raised in the days of leaded gasoline could have been!

Professor James E. Nickum is an adviser at the Water Governance Research Programme, University of Hong Kong


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Ruling party’s resounding win in Singapore elections reflects the success of its political model

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Tom Plate

Tom Plate finds reasons in Singapore’s latest election results for taking its governance model seriously

You don’t automatically think of “elections” when thinking of Singapore; many will come to a stop at “authoritarian”. Blame the latter perception, if you want, on the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, for whom dissenting views were an obstacle which a state on a fast-track course of economic development could ill afford, especially if the ruling party had all the right answers, or at least many of them.

But after the iron-willed Lee died, at 91 in March, if you thought that was the beginning of the end of his People’s Action Party (PAP), you thought wrong. Last week, the government, led by his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, surprised the world (and maybe even himself) with a landslide election win that has to be viewed as a vindication of father, son, party and policies – all bound together.

Being bound together is not necessarily so terrible a political thing. Outsiders ridiculed the “nanny state”, as the Lees’ Singapore has been dubbed. But when it turns out that the “nannies” sport high IQs and aren’t stashing the people’s money in foreign bank accounts but are on the whole producing positive public policy, such “binding” feels more like the special social glue (or social capital) that is the essence of a successful society.

You know all about the sparkling statistics – a high per capita income, low crime rate, highly rated health system, solid schools and almost a cultural fever for higher education. Problems? There are plenty, including the rich-poor gap, immigrant workers, high-cost housing and so on; but none are remotely unique in the region, much less worldwide; and the Lee government had “street cred” in pushing to solve them.

To quote a former cabinet member: “The world is changing fast. Governance can’t stop changing.” To that end, the new government to be formed should, in this post-Lee-Kuan-Yew era, dial up a little more tolerance for dissent and media latitude.

Another anti-Singapore sling has been that it is so tiny, its success is no big deal at all. Wrong again. Half the world’s countries – the UN recognises 193 – have populations fewer than 10 million, and many have fewer than Singapore’s, including Ireland, Uruguay, Norway, Kuwait and New Zealand. So instead of criticising it for electoral impurity, why not take an open-minded look at its overall governance philosophy.

Policies are to be hatched not in the bowels of multinational corporations or in conference rooms of musty parliaments and half-bought congresses, where the sun rarely shines; but in venues that honour intellect and aim to hatch best practices ( (such as the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy); and with bright and honest government officials who are paid well.

Yet, despite the 50-year streak of achievement, the PAP had feared the worst. The party was still shaking in self-doubt from the 2011 elections, in which a handful of parliamentary seats were lost (a big, big deal in Singapore), the PAP lost some of its halo and Lee Kuan Yew, among other grandees, retired from the government.

Suddenly, the party that had been running things for so long feared voters would tilt for opposition candidates just for the sake of change.

Note that a meaner, more incompetent kind of government – think, oh, of Thailand’s – might have pushed panic buttons of delay. Or have risked the system’s integrity by sanctioning only well-vetted, like-minded candidates with near-identical perspectives (see Hong Kong’s rejection of the 2017 election proposal).

PAP’s secretary general Lee Hsien Loong celebrating the election results. Photo: EPA

Rather, the Lee government, staying on the high ground, won big, despite a tremendous opposition effort. But, as a noted Singapore journalist put it: “People were so rattled by all the rallies and extensive use of social media, they took flight to safety, fearing big gains by opposition and a weakened government. Shrewd electorate.” He may be onto something.

One candidate from the losing Reform Party compared the result to those in China and North Korea: “All this is a mandate for authoritarianism and brainwashing. Singaporeans get the government they deserve. I don’t want to hear any more complaints.”

Singaporeans, in my experience, are anything but dumb, and talking down to those voters isn’t smart. Last week, in their choice of who shall continue to serve as their “nanny”, they chose well.

When I first visited, in 1996, I left impressed and wrote a Los Angeles Times column saying that. But American journalists, not one ever bothering to visit or interview Lee Kuan Yew (one columnist called him “Little Hitler”), thought I had lost my mind. I began to wonder whether the US media had lost its.

Two decades later, much of the Western media finally got the story right – that Singapore is a huge success, with a verifiable, empirical reason: it offers good governance. So where can we find more nannies like that?

I sincerely hope the leaders of China are taking all this in. The late Lee Kuan Yew could be grumpily frank about his tepidity for one-person, one-vote elections. He would tell you that such a system risked producing erratic results (inferior leaders). But he also accepted that it gave people a sense of purpose in the polity, and more reasons for the ruling party to stay close to its constituencies.

The Singapore system is obviously not for everybody. That’s not the argument here. But there’s no reason not to take it seriously, not to mention not to treat it with the respect it deserves.

By the way, have you been following what’s going on in neighbouring Malaysia?

Columnist Tom Plate, the author of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew in the Giants of Asia series, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles

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It takes more than just money to create a happy workforce, in Hong Kong, the US or anywhere else

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says there is much companies can do to make work challenging and engaging, beginning with inspiring leadership, as a good salary isn’t the only reason employees stay

When it comes to their jobs, most Hong Kong people are unhappy. According to a recent report by a jobs website, more than six in 10 Hong Kong people are miserable at work. And contrary to what you may think, it’s not just because of the money.

Instead, the unhappiness has more to do with the relationships with their colleagues and bosses. And while some experts were quick to dismiss the findings, saying “you can never satisfy employees”, I disagree.

It’s possible to have happy employees – not only that, it’s essential.

After all, today’s companies rise and fall not just on the quality of their products but also on what people think of them. That starts first with their employees. All it takes is for one indignant status update to go viral, and it’s good luck with finding new recruits.

It takes more than money, according to research by Professor Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College in the United States. He found that, increasingly, workers also want to feel challenged and engaged.

Schwartz found that firms that offer interesting and meaningful work, over which employees had some autonomy and discretion, not only produced happier workers but were ultimately more profitable.

Yet, too often, this isn’t the case. And it’s not just in Hong Kong, but in the US too, where a Gallup poll published this year found that close to 70 per cent of workers were not actively engaged in their jobs.

As a whole, we’ve become so obsessed with efficiency and streamlining and so accustomed to rewarding people monetarily rather than intellectually that work has become, well, dull.

That’s got to change if we’re to survive and thrive in the digital era. Hong Kong employers cannot keep counting on the economy being bad as their main reason why workers won’t leave. That should not be the reason. The nature of the work, the energy of fellow colleagues, and the inspiring vision and leadership of the boss – those should be why workers stay.

Simple things like being more transparent with employees on the state of the company, allowing workers to focus on their jobs by eliminating unnecessary meetings and emails, asking for employee input, allowing flexible work schedules, especially for working parents – all these go a long way to making employees happy without breaking the bank.

It’s with all these goals in mind that I’ve led my company for the past 10 years. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always got everything right. I began my business straight out of law school, at the age of 20. What did I know? But one thing I did do right, in hindsight, is to not run it like a conventional business.

Instead, I ran it like a think tank. I traded hierarchy for openness and collaboration. I encouraged workers to disagree with me, letting ideas battle it out rather than job titles.

And most of all, I mentored people. Lots and lots of extraordinary colleagues, whose strengths I identified, refined and leveraged.

Make no mistake, it’s not easy mentoring staff. It’s much simpler to just write a cheque.

But the former has rewarded me in ways that the latter alone could never have done, not just in terms of staff retention rates but in terms of happiness and satisfaction. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want from work?

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

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Blind pursuit of university degrees taking Hong Kong down the wrong path

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer

Peter Kammerer says our obsession with a tertiary education leads only to job mismatch, unmet expectations and a wasteful use of public funds

It takes a brave parent to let their daughter or son do what they want after secondary school. It is especially so if the international education route has been taken: the price of a Ferrari has gone into tuition fees, after-school lessons and overseas excursions. For some, there will be heated discussion if the choice is a university degree in the arts or humanities; the job prospects and financial rewards are not perceived as being rosy. And what of the child who is a gym rat or world-beating skate-boarder?

Hong Kong’s obsession with degrees colours the picture. Graduation, often from the best universities, is needed just to get a job interview . The only guarantees are having done medicine, civil engineering and accounting; if nothing satisfactory is offered, then it’s back to school. Even then, the economic circumstances and fact that college qualifications are increasingly ubiquitous means the financial returns are going to be below what they were last year.

There is also a simple reality that governments and universities will never admit to: the majority of jobs do not need a degree. Higher education is a lucrative business for making money from students, which is why there are ever more universities and courses on offer. I’ve no problem with people wanting to do a degree in Asian or Buddhist studies – such endeavours broaden knowledge and understanding and give intellectual fulfilment. I object, though, to such degrees being subsidised by the public purse.

A journalism degree is not needed to be a journalist, nor is one in graphic design necessary to be a graphic artist. The same is true for many other professions, from performance art to librarianship to nursing. They are about skills and knowledge, matters that are best learned on the job. A degree-crazy society, egged on by what are essentially certificate mills, has brainwashed us into thinking otherwise.

I began in journalism in Australia at a time when journalism graduates were rare. Life experience, not qualifications, were what it took to write about people. I got a degree only because the company I was working for was supportive of the local university’s journalism course. That, now, virtually every tertiary institution offers a journalism or communications degree and is churning out graduates for an industry that is a shadow of its former self, and needs only a fraction of the number, speaks volumes about why a shake-up is necessary. Nor is a degree necessary to be successful. Hong Kong’s top tycoons prove that, as do Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, who all dropped out of college to launch their companies. They didn’t need MBAs – all they needed were smart ideas, the will to succeed and faith in their abilities.

Not everyone is a Steve Jobs, of course – most of us are average in intellect. For that reason alone, the idea that there is a need for ever more high-school leavers to go to university at public expense should ring alarm bells. Hong Kong needs doctors, scientists, engineers, financial experts and hi-tech specialists – these are the degrees the government should help fund. All others should be done at personal or family expense.

The late Australian country music legend Slim Dusty nicely summed up my thinking in a song a lifetime ago. “We got the kindies and beginners at the primary school, where the kiddies learn to read and write, we got the colleges and universities for the ones that seem so bright, we got the technical trade school apprentices for those who like to use their hands, then all the rest left over get to sing in a rock and roll band.”

It’s not cerebral and never won a songwriting award. But in a degree-crazy world, this is the back-to-basics thinking needed to get us back on track.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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If Hong Kong truly wants to embrace democracy, then we have to learn to accept different views

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Alice Wu

Alice Wu says the resignation of another party moderate is a sign that people in Hong Kong still have not learned the art of embracing differences of opinion

Tik Chi-yuen’s formal resignation from the Democratic Party came as no surprise. Friends part ways; it’s part of life. It’s the sort of “closure” that is needed for all parties to move on from the havoc caused by Hong Kong’s last attempt at democratic reforms.

Closure is one thing, but moving on takes actual effort. It’s encouraging to see that the pan-democrats are making the effort to cooperate and work on unity as they look ahead to the district council elections. It’s a definite sign of political maturity; finding common ground and collaborating is a good place to start.

But Tik’s resignation is also a reminder that finding common ground and collaborating is easy only if everyone agrees with one another. As the world celebrates International Day of Democracy tomorrow, there is perhaps no better time for us, and the city’s pan-democrats, to take a hard look at what democracy entails.

One measurement is not how well we can work with assenting voices, but with dissenting ones. The 1997 “Universal Declaration on Democracy” called on democratic institutions “to mediate tensions and maintain equilibrium between the competing claims of diversity and uniformity, individuality and collectivity, in order to enhance social cohesion and solidarity”.

We must ask ourselves what Tik’s resignation – and that of Ronny Tong Ka-wah and Nelson Wong Sing-chi earlier – tells us. In Tik’s resignation letter, he wrote: “It’s a pity that we have come under pressure from outside which has made no room for [the party] to allow, tolerate and accept different voices.” The way the party treated Tik and Wong for having differing opinions was not a proud moment, at least in the “democratic” sense. There was nothing “democratic” in the hostility and ostracism so publicly on display. Unfortunately, the recent response of Emily Lau Wai-hing, the party’s chairwoman, to Tik’s decision was not exactly one of “tolerance” or gracefulness. She said neither Tik nor Wong shared the same cause as the party.

Perhaps Lau should have simply respected their decisions. Perhaps she had conveniently forgotten that they founded the party together. The party may have evolved – hence the need for a parting of ways – but to condemn original founders for not sharing the party cause is perhaps taking things too far.

This is also perhaps indicative of why she, as party leader, has failed to promote the very values she claims to champion.

John F. Kennedy once said: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather, it condemns the oppression of persecution of others.”

Democracy cannot be monopolised. The my-way-or-the-highway kind of “democracy” – one that leaves no room for different views – is simply not the sort we should aspire to.

What is most sad about these three moderates having no choice but to resign from the parties they founded is that they were the ones who believed in politics – that within every daunting circumstance lies the possibility of a way forward. They resigned from being resigned to a purely rejectionist approach. Politics is the art of the possible and they were ostracised for believing that.

In fighting for our democratic ideals, we must ask ourselves whether we have lost sight of what democracy requires. Tolerance requires that we embrace, even celebrate, differences. That is an integral part of democracy. In our quest for democracy, how have we contributed to what the “Universal Declaration on Democracy” calls safeguarding people’s “right to be different” and creating “a climate of tolerance”?

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA