Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Tyranny of Public Opinion

Since coming home, I have been confronted with an overload of news, which is more alarming and worrisome than ever. Notwithstanding the potential uproar, it is hard to resist the temptation of highlighting the signs of an emerging tyranny of public opinion.

The public uproar against the court case of Amina Mariam Bokhary is a vivid example of this worrisome trend. As many of us take pride in the judiciary independence in Hong Kong, more of us seem to have taken it for granted and thus, don't even know what it truly means. By definition, judiciary independence means the court should be insulated not only from the executive and legislative powers of the government but also from the improper influence of private and partisan interests. Understandably the public uproar against the verdict of Ms Bokhary, who has committed the same offence for the third time, stems from suspicions of bias and inclination towards the rich and powerful. But the key question is: how certain are we that our self-proclaimed justice is based on ration and impartial judgement rather than a brewing (or boiling in fact) hostility towards the rich and powerful?

Law is a profession that undertakes rigorous training and highest possible integrity, which forms the base of its credibility and public trust as a self-governed profession. Since most of us have not been trained in law schools, we trust that properly trained and qualified lawyers and judges would carry out their duties in a strictly defined professional manner. We do not necessarily have the knowledge or capability to verify so we have to believe in the professionals' goodwill and professionalism.

What we can see from Ms Bokhary's case, however, is the lack of trust in the professionalism and independence of the magistrate. When the verdict does not meet public expectation, a blast of opinions in the media and on the internet is hardly surprising. But we can't jump to the conclusion (which is not much than a contagious speculation) that the magistrate is biased towards the well-established elite families and therefore the verdict has to be overthrown. Such a public view should have been confined to the press, blogs, Facebook and other forms of interpersonal exchanges. But it was incited, magnified and "formalised" into a political interference into the judiciary independence, which, following a political decision by Secretary for Justice, eventually led to a judicial review of the case.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the judicial review, the emerging trend that public opinion prevails is truly alarming and intriguing. Public opinion is often emotional, impulsive and irresponsible. It can be easily distorted, manipulated and exploited. How can we ensure the so-called public opinion is more impartial, fair and rational than a verdict by rigorously trained professionals?

The root cause of this unfortunate distrust and scepticism of professionals, in my opinion, stems from the suffocating frustrations that began accumulating since the financial crisis in 1998. The incompetence of the post-1997 administrations in maintaining a respectable standard of living for the local people only proves to fuel the resentment. Looking at economic indices such as Gini coefficient, purchasing power parity and the proportion of low-income families, one does not need a doctoral degree in economics to realise the dwindling standard of living in Hong Kong. When everyone's livelihood is at stake and no effective solution has been visible, it is hardly surprising to see anger and frustrations being transformed into hostility towards the better-off. Yet not many of us seem to remember that this is an extremely dangerous ground that had groomed absolutism and Nazism.

This is why I think the distrust and scepticism of the professionals is alarming. If we allow it to spread further and internalise, are we ready for the consequence, the demise of judiciary independence? Does it mean we will overtake the court and judge by public opinion? If so, how do we ensure it is a consensus of seven million residents in the city? Are we ready to have a vote or referendum on every single court case?

Where freedom of speech rather than rationality and sense seems to be hailed and worshipped like almighty gods in any religion, I can't help wondering how capable its people are in finding the right way in the labyrinth of our arbitrariness, complacence and prejudice.

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