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Hong Kong beats Bhutan? Think again

2015/6/15 — 18:51

Paro, Bhutan ( photo: Jean-Marie Hullot @ wikipedia )

Paro, Bhutan ( photo: Jean-Marie Hullot @ wikipedia )

        Last week, there was a wonderful burst of Hong Kong pride when our football team defeated Bhutan 7-0 in a World Cup qualifying match.

        However, let us not be too quick to gloat. As I discovered on a recent visit to that little kingdom, its political system gives our supposed international metropolis much to envy and admire.   

        Before the visit, I knew very little about Bhutan. In most Hong Kong people’s minds, Bhutan is primarily known for two things: firstly, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (the famous actor) hosted his wedding there in 2008, and secondly, the Bhutanese people are among the world's happiest people. Indeed, according to the Positive Experience Index published by Gallup in March 2015, Bhutan ranked 18th while Hong Kong ranked only 78th (among 143 countries or regions surveyed). This is despite the fact that, according to the World Bank’s statistics, the GDP per capita of Bhutan in 2013 was US$2,400, whereas that of Hong Kong was US$38,200.

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        On my arrival in Bhutan, I discovered that my tour guide was a law school graduate. As I was curious to find out more about this mysterious country, I seized every opportunity to discuss the politics and law of Bhutan with him.

        So how exactly do the political and legislative systems work, and how are government polices made, in this small Asian country with around a tenth of Hong Kong’s population?

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The political system and legislature of Bhutan

        The political system of absolute monarchy commenced in Bhutan about a century ago. Since the establishment of the monarchy, the throne has been held by the Wangchuck family. In 2008, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan, voluntarily abdicated the throne in favour of his eldest son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and transformed Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

        Now, the King acts as the Head of State with his powers limited by the Parliament, which has legislative power. The bicameral Parliament is divided into National Council as the upper house and National Assembly as the lower house. The National Council consists of 25 members, 20 of which are elected by citizens while 5 are nominated by the King. They may not hold any political party affiliation. On the other hand, all the National Assembly members are elected by citizens and may hold political party affiliation. The leader of the ruling party becomes the prime minister.

        In 2008, Bhutan had its first general election, in which 310,000 eligible voters cast their votes to form a democratic government. In general terms, the present political system of Bhutan is similar to that of the United Kingdom.

        Among the work of the Parliament is the passing of bills. Either the National Council or the National Assembly may author bills to be passed as acts. A bill presented, considered, and passed by one house must also be considered and passed by the other house, and receive the King’s assent, before it is enacted.

The legislature of Hong Kong

        Most of us are familiar with the system in Hong Kong. Under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region enjoys legislative power, and the Legislative Council (Legco) is its legislature. Currently, Legco consists of 70 members. 35 Legco members are returned by geographical constituencies (GC) through direct elections by 3.5 million registered GC electors (as of 2014). The other 35 are returned by functional constituencies (FC) through elections by 230,000 registered FC electors. As half of the Legco seats are elected by FC electors, the FC have long been viewed as the ‘privileged class’ within society and it is apparent that the legislative system overwhelmingly favours the FC.

        The Executive Council (Exco) is an organ “for assisting the Chief Executive in policy-making”. Exco members are appointed by the Chief Executive, who presides at Exco meetings.

        After a bill is drafted by the Law Drafting Division of the Department of Justice, it is submitted to Exco, where the Chief Executive, in consultation with Exco members, decides whether to approve or reject it. A bill that has been approved for introduction into Legco must go through debates and three readings at Legco before it can be enacted.

How government policies are made

        To understand how government policies are made in Bhutan, it is important to note that, beginning in the 1970s, Bhutan’s fourth King started to advocate the concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The King placed more importance on promoting GNH than GDP in the development of Bhutan.

        To maintain GNH, before the Bhutan government makes a new policy or enacts a new law, government representatives will reach out to the public to understand how local people would be affected by the proposed policy or law. For instance, if the government wants to develop a particular locality, government representatives would do a site visit to understand the current situation and talk to the affected people to understand their needs. The government would listen to people’s views to ensure the government’s decisions would have a positive impact on GNH. Although this law-making process tends to be slow, the government succeeds in serving the nation by putting its citizens’ needs first. The King is widely seen as caring about his country and his people, and it is no surprise that he is enormously popular.

        Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the government headed by CY Leung hardly seems to address the people’s concerns when making policies or enacting law. The government is perceived to disproportionately favour the interests of tycoons and property developers and to pander to the Beijing government. It is unnecessary to list out all the examples here. But it is noteworthy that recently when the “political reform trio” (Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen, and  Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam) and other government officials took part in a bus parade to drum up support for the political reform package, they never even stepped off the bus to engage with local residents. Given that the government refuses to listen to the public in dealing with an issue as significant as political reform, it makes one wonder what concerns are in the forefront of the government’s mind when it makes other policy decisions or enacts other laws.

        At the end of my trip, I could not help but think: Bhutan lags behind Hong Kong significantly on the GDP front, but there is a lot that the Hong Kong government needs to learn from this little Asian country.

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