Oh Say Can You See

Some 50 years ago I lived for a few months in Bangkok. Our local cinema always played the Thai national anthem before the main feature film. There was a small notice at the bottom of the screen telling us to stand up and everyone did. Even though I was a hippy at the time and by nature rebellious, it seemed perfectly natural to stand along with everyone else.

I still remember there was a point during the rendition when the music stopped, the farangs in the audience would start to sit down but the locals remained standing. Sure enough after a few seconds pause the music resumed.

I record this experience to illustrate that playing a country’s national anthem, and expecting everyone – both local and foreigner – to show respect is by no means a new phenomenon in Asia. It seemed worthwhile pointing this out as we start our own community’s consideration of a bill to make respecting the Chinese national anthem – the March of the Volunteers – a legal requirement. Or to put it another way, disrespecting the anthem will be an offence potentially leading to a significant fine and even a jail term.

Judging by some of the reaction in the media and on talk shows, you would think this was the jackboot of a wicked administration coming down to crush the last vestige of freedom of the Hong Kong people. Is it really? Are espousers of such views being just a tiny bit hysterical with some of the criticisms? Has anyone heard of hyperbole?

Take for example the claim that the draft bill does not outline all the possible ways of behaving that might constitute disrespect. “People have a right to know exactly what they can and can’t do as a fundamental legal principle” one legislator said on the radio. The rebuttal came quickly: “any more than the law specifies all the ways in which you are not allowed to deliberately kill someone. However you do it, it is still murder, and that is against the law.” Is that so difficult to understand?

If Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary, Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, were to list out 50 possible ways to insult the March, you can bet your bottom dollar some clever clogs would invent a fifty-first way. Even if he listed out 500, you could be sure that a determined dissident would create still one more.

It is at this point we need to wheel out the well-known legal concept of the “reasonable man”. Under the common law system, when interpreting a case, the judge (or jury, which in theory is composed of reasonable men) asks themselves how a proverbial reasonable man would view matters. For example, if the law said while the anthem was being played everyone had to stand, how should we deal with a handicapped person in a wheelchair? Clearly a reasonable man would say he should be exempted. But if the law exempted everyone in a wheelchair and all the pan democrats in Legco turned up for the swearing-in ceremony in wheelchairs so they wouldn’t have to stand up, it wouldn’t take too long for a reasonable man to conclude this was a dramatic conspiracy to show disrespect.

Nor should we forget the well-known concept of common sense which needs to be brought to bear on implementation. For example, it cannot be a requirement that everyone actually sing the anthem. There are many people of other nationalities in Hong Kong who would not know the words. Among Chinese there are many who speak Cantonese or another tongue and do not speak Mandarin. There are some people who know they sing badly and may be concerned that their poor vocals would leave them vulnerable to prosecution. For these and other reasons it would not be sensible for the law to require that everyone give voice. But it is reasonable to require that those who do not sing themselves stand solemnly while others do so.

Even students in international schools should have some understanding of the anthem’s history, and its meaning in their own language. The lyrics – Stand up all those who don’t want to be slaves – are pretty inspiring and compare well with the anthems of other countries. The duration and style are also favourable, not much over a minute of lively singing where some others drone on like dirges with words to match.

There is one aspect of the proposals which merits further thought and that is giving the police up to two years from the time of the incident to bring charges. A more usual interval for offences of this type would be six months. Nip’s defence of this provision was less than convincing. After all, if large sections of a football crowd were heard booing, it is not necessary to identify every single person who sat in that part of the stand. Just identify and arrest those who can clearly be seen on the tape doing wrong. The remainder will soon get the message about what behaviour is unacceptable.

My main concern at this stage is the level and tenor of debate. I very much hope this is not going to turn into one of those reflex issues where some members of Legco say, in effect, if the government is in favour then we’re against, while others say precisely the reverse. We need a calm and reasoned public discourse so that we reach a conclusion which all, or at least most, of the community feels comfortable with.

In short, we need our reasonable man and his common sense.