Snakes and Ladders

It is long past time the Hong Kong SAR Government lifted its black travel advisory in respect of the Philippines. If that bold step in turn induces President Benigno Aquino to finally issue an apology to the victims of last summer’s massacre, so much the better. But if it does not, then let him stand exposed for all to see as unfit to carry the name of his father and mother.

Quite a few Governments, mostly in advanced countries, have a system of issuing outbound travel alerts to advise their citizens of the security and crime situations in popular destinations. I am not sure any of them should be doing so because it smacks very much of a nanny state and there are quite enough manifestations of this already. Moreover it also subtly reinforces the idea that we should be looking to the Government to take care of us in more and more areas of life rather than standing on our own two feet.

Be that as it may, since we have such a system and it is not going to be scrapped any time soon, then the least we can do is operate it properly.

Several governments have in place travel alerts about the Philippines. Some parts of the country are particularly vulnerable to terrorist acts and there is fair amount of violent crime spread generally. Partly for these reasons, I have never visited the country despite having lived close by in Hong Kong for almost 40 years.

So, under our alert system, an Amber warning ("Signs of threat -- Monitor situation. Exercise caution") in respect of the whole country and a Red warning ("Significant threat -- Adjust travel plans. Avoid non-essential travel") in respect of some areas would be fully justified.

The events of 23 August last year came as a shock to everyone in Hong Kong. It wasn’t just that a crazed person could cold bloodedly take a packed tour bus hostage and then shoot the passengers when he didn’t get his own way. Added to it, and making the situation seem even worse, was the quite breathtaking incompetence of the police and other authorities in dealing with it.

The resulting deaths and injuries were a tragedy for everyone involved. Nothing can ever change that. Perhaps, as a sign of sympathy and to help survivors and relatives cope with their grief, a temporary upgrade to Black ("Severe threat – Avoid all travel") was understandable.

But the alert should have been lowered as soon as a decent mourning period had passed. To maintain it as Black – the only other country so graded is Syria where the government is firing indiscriminately on cities with tanks from the land and warships from the sea – for over a year is excessive. It thereby devalues the whole system.

The two governments are now locked in the diplomatic equivalent of a Mexican standoff. Our Chief Executive and Minister for Security say they won’t lower the threat level until there have been some unspecified assurances about the safety of future tour groups. And President Aquino says he won’t apologise for what happened because it was the act of a single individual.

Neither of these positions stands up to scrutiny and none of the parties involved are behaving in a statesmanlike way. Our own leaders look suspiciously as though they are playing to the gallery of the grieving relatives and the media. We all know in our hearts that this tragedy was not directed at Hong Kong people. The biggest sufferers from the corruption and maladministration in the Philippines are the Filipinos themselves, and they must endure it all day, every day. On this occasion some of our fellow citizens got caught up in it. We should not be using the travel alert system to inflict some kind of economic collective punishment on an entire nation because of the criminal acts of an individual.

Similarly President Aquino could have – and should have many months ago – stepped up to a microphone and made a simple statement of regret that such a terrible incident had happened in his country. It would not have demeaned him, or his nation, rather it would have reminded us all of the finer qualities of the Philippine people. Their warmth, their generosity of spirit, their joie de vivre.

When two sets of leaders are locked into untenable positions, experienced diplomats look for a way out – a so-called ladder to climb down.

Having seen the Manila emergency services in action, I think it would be safer for everyone if our Chief Executive asked the Hong Kong Fire Services Department to make the first move.