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Being an Official Means (Almost) Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

  • July 23, 2013, 5:32 PM

Being an Official Means (Almost) Never Having to Say You’re Sorry



Protesters demand an apology outside the Philippine consulate in Hong Kong on May 14, 2013 after a Taiwanese fisherman died in a fatal shooting by the Philippine Coast Guard.

Dolce & Gabbanna has said sorry. Hong Kong’s former leader has said sorry.

And if the city’s ombudsman has its way, a lot more people will be sounding penitent in Hong Kong in the years to come.

In recent months, the city has seen public apologies issued for everything from prohibitions on photography (in the case of Dolce & Gabbanna) to taking luxury trips with local tycoons (in the case of Donald Tsang, the city’s former chief executive). Now, the city’s ombudsman, which investigates complaints about public agencies, is pushing the government to consider legislation that would allow officials to say “I’m sorry” without fear of being sued.

Last year, the city’s ombudsman pursued 2,285 complaints made about public agencies’ conduct, ranging from disputes over the handling of noise ordinances to waste management. Apologies were issued in response to only 15% of the cases. And even when apologies were issued, the agency said, 85% came only after officials were pressed by the ombudsman.

Nadja Alexander, who directs an institute focusing on conflict resolution at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, said apology legislation was an important step for the city.

“We live in a litigious society, not only in Hong Kong, but also in places such as Europe, Australia and the U.S.,” she said. “People are often nervous about apologizing for fear a lawsuit’s going to be slapped on them and someone’s going to say, ‘You said it was your fault.’”

To help combat that fear, at least 36 states in the U.S., numerous Canadian provinces and all of Australia’s states and territories have passed apology legislation. Ms. Alexander said this type of legislation helps make it clear that apologies don’t necessarily constitute an admission of liability and can help reduce legal costs associated with medical mistakes and car accidents.

“When an apology is received as authentic, as really sincere, people who were wronged are less likely to seek revenge. They’re more likely to be able to feel they can forgive and less likely to litigate,” Ms. Alexander said.

Hong Kong knows firsthand about how upsetting it can be to miss out on an apology. Hong Kong’s government has asked more than 20 times for an apology from authorities in the Philippines over the 2010 bus hijacking that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead. Earlier this year, the city’s marine department director was slammed over his refusal to apologize for his department’s oversights, following last fall’s boat crash off of Lamma Island that left dozens dead. More recently, the outgoing American envoy in Hong Kong said the U.S. doesn’t an owe an apology to Hong Kong, or anyone, for allegations made last month by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s department of justice said it has already set up a task force that’s considering the need for apology legislation.

In the meantime, the ombudsman said it would keep pushing to make apologies part of the city’s official toolkit. “My office will continue to make recommendations that public officials apologize as appropriate,” said ombudsman Alan Lai.

– Te-Ping Chen. Follow her on Twitter @tepingchen.

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