If I were homeless… (1) – not having an address

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This series of articles muses about what could happen if I became homeless. I’ll be cycling from London to Paris in July to raise money for the Big Issue Foundation, a charity that, in its own words, aims to give homeless people a hand up, not a hand-out. I would be most grateful for your sponsorship. Please click for details about the charity and my challenge. (中文版)

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Every month I can’t wait to get to the final day, because that’s when I get paid. My bank account goes above 0 for about a day (as I’m using my overdraft), then in despair I watch it fall back into the red once I’ve paid my rent and bills. But I still count myself lucky; at least I’ve got a place for which to pay rent, bills and council tax.

In a series of articles I’ll explore what it could mean to me if I became homeless. To start off, I won’t even count how important it is to have physical shelter, but how important it is to simply have an address other than, for example, “Del Monte cardboard boxes, exit 4, Elephant and Castle roundabout subway, London, SE1 (6 pm to 6 am only)”.

Have a think. See if you can add to this list.

Without a proper fixed address, I wouldn’t be able to, or at least would find it difficult to:

  • Have Christmas cards, or indeed anything, posted to me
  • Open a bank account
  • Apply for a permanent job
  • Receive my wages (if I’ve got a permanent job)
  • Claim certain (or any) benefits
  • Register to vote
  • Register with a GP
  • Acquire a proof of identity (e.g. passport, driving licence)
  • Access any discount schemes to lower the cost of living (e.g. supermarket loyalty cards)
  • Get a credit rating
  • Get a mobile phone contract

I won’t be able to, or will find it difficult to, do all of those things if I didn’t have an address. Some of the things are more trivial; others vital. How would I cope? How would you cope?

Of course, theoretically, there are ways to get around all the above problems. For example, in 2001 the Bank of Scotland began a scheme to make it easier for homeless people to acquire bank accounts to help homeless people keep their money safe or even begin saving up (click!). But simply not having a fixed address can lead to many inconveniences when leading a daily life. Don’t take your home for granted; don’t even take your address for granted!

Next time I’ll start thinking about the material goodies I’d lack without a home.

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財政預算案2011:港府又一無新意傑作

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「聽我講無錯!」

香港本年的財政預算案又凸顯港府施政不濟。

全球一體化已使許多經濟體系的命脈連在一起。最近全球石油、原材料和食品物價上升,使許多國家紛紛出現通脹。在英國,1月的消費者物價指數比上月上升達4%,是14個月來高於英倫銀行的通脹目標2%。在香港,通脤同樣是大問題。

同樣面對通脤,但香港和英國的經濟處境卻有天壤之別。英國聯合政府去年5月上台時,面對龐大的公共赤字,新財相歐思邦大刀闊斧削減政府開支。在此時物價仍然高企,英倫銀行行長金麥文解釋,這是因為增值稅率剛增加,由於英國經濟仍然疲弱,通脤會在未來自動降低。

而在香港,通脹的其他誘因則比較長期,包括從大陸進口的通脤、美國聯儲局持續的低息政策和香港高企的樓價。財政司司長曾俊華最近公布了財政預算案。與英國不同的是,港府庫房「水浸」,盈餘多達700億港元。預算案前,市民都盼望政府推出各種一次性的紓困措施,俗稱「派糖」。不過,除了免收一年差餉等「舊招」外,最為市民所望的退稅,曾司長卻以「退稅會刺激通脤」為由而拒絕,取而代之的是政府這次的旗艦政策,就是在每位市民的強積退休金互口注資6,000元。當然,政府不退稅有理,因為市民現金多了,但市場貨物數量不變,通脤自然加劇。但撥資強積金作為次選卻令筆者有一點摸不著頭緒。強積金是市民退休才能支出,除了即將退休人仕,其他市民望穿秋水也未必能享受當中益處,加上基金價格可升可跌,這6,000元最後變成甚麼價值,無人能知,更無助市民解決燃眉之急。筆者認為僅有的妙計是發行與通脹率掛鉤的債券,讓市民資金保值之餘,又將資金吸離市場,紓緩通脤。

香港物價高企,外圍因素不少得,但樓價近年急升也是元兇之一。國內的暴發戶紛紛到香港置業,買的都是海景豪宅。地產商受需求影響,自然大力投資興建毫宅,只須看看西九龍新填地的「屏風樓群」就略知一二了。不過這些國內的巨賈未必會搬來香港住,反而本地的市民,負擔不起豪宅之餘,不論政府或地產商,都沒有為他們興建足夠的廉價房屋,以至許多市民根本買不起樓,需要多人同住一個小單位,形成「蝸居」一族。豪宅無人住,平樓無人起,市民住無居所。所以,許多市民對財政預算案的另一個期望是政府會加強措施壓抑樓價。但政府提出增加的單位供應的數目被市場質疑,而其他政策在社會上有彈無讚。這份預算案普遍在社會的支持度不大。

香港民怨沸騰,已不是新聞。港府最近在許多政策上連番失誤,究竟是為甚麼呢?歸根究底,港府是隻跛腳鴨,受多方制肘:既不是中央,不能行國內「嚴父」的一套;又因民意的緣故,不能名正言順公開宣佈政策被大財團控制這個公開的秘密;但又因為不是民選出來的,不可以用「眾望所歸」的理由對抗中央或大財團的懿旨和利益。香港政府無能,不是因為人材不濟,而是因為歸屬感混亂,毫無方向,結果所推行的政策經常碰壁。本年的財政預算案就可見一斑了。

英國政府大幅削減開支,怨聲四起,經濟復甦仍然疲弱。相反,香港背靠大陸,經濟強勁,社會卻不覺得比英國和諧穩定。從近期北非所發生的民主革命所見,如果政府予人的印象是「官富民窮」,社會表面的和諧持續到不多久。當然,香港發動像突尼西亞般的「茉莉花革命」的機會不大(即使有政團發起反預算案的「紫荊花革命」),因為香港有言論及遊行等自由作發洩途徑,而政改仍能依循法律進行。但要香港市民繼續忍受這樣不濟的管治,就真的辛苦他們了。一個政府不為自己的市民著想,甚麼穩定都是假。而一個政府不是被民眾選舉出來的,要其為市民著想,也有一點困難。說到尾,社會穩定最重要的元素是民眾參與。西方人是這樣,中東人是這樣,中國人沒有理由不是這樣。

Say “Yes” to AV!

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My reason for supporting AV is simple: it would create a fairer system of government that Britain deserves.

After weeks of haggling, Parliament finally passed the necessary legislation to set the stage for a referendum on changing the voting system for Britain’s general elections this coming May. A “Yes” vote would abandon the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system and adopt the “alternative vote” (AV). Both the “Yes” and “No” camps have now begun to campaign for their sides. I throw my weight—whatever its worth—behind the “Yes” camp.

There are many points of contention between the camps—how much AV would cost, whether people would understand, who in the world use it, whether it will boost or kill small parties etc. My support for AV is based solely on the belief that that would create a fairer and more contestable political system.

The current FPTP system allows electors to pick just one candidate on the ballot paper, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Simple and effective—but is it fair? British Members of Parliament serve two purposes: on a constituency level they represent the people in central Government, holding it to account; on a national level, the numbers of MPs from one party determine whether that party can form a Government.

In principle, in a constituency with three main contesting parties, under FPTP, a candidate needs to win only 34% of the vote to represent that constituency. Multiply that nationally, the winning party will not need anything close to a majority of votes to form a Government to raise our taxes, make our laws or take us to war. In 2005 Labour won 62% of seats with only 41% of the vote. Supporters of FPTP argue quite rightly that the current system allows strong Governments to be formed, but democracy is about building representative Governments, not strong ones.

AV would change that. It would allow voters to rank candidates by order of preference, and the winning candidate must garner at least 50% of the votes. More people’s votes must be counted to find a winner, rather than the 34% in the example given above. It would end the system where, for example, a Labour candidate in a constituency with an inner-city population greater than the suburban or rural population can ignore the latter’s preferences, because the suburban and rural second-preference votes can now also count against Labour. It would mean that every candidate must work harder to persuade people to vote for them, even as a second choice.

Supporters of FPTP fret that the chances of creating hung Parliaments are greater under AV, but that’s not a disaster. Politics, especially national politics, shouldn’t be about one party that hasn’t achieved a majority imposing its agenda on people who didn’t vote for it. In fact, we value compromise and consensus between stakeholders in all our social relationships—family, friends, couples. Why should national politics be any different?

FPTP supporters say that AV won’t bring the change it is intended, but stagnation in popular participation in national politics is partly due to apathetic voting culture encouraged by FPTP. Winning AV won’t change that overnight, but it would be the first step for people to re-engage with national politics. After all, it is the former that the latter is supposed to serve.

And now, you can make it happen, by voting “Yes” on 5 May.

Click for more information about the “Yes” and “No” camps.

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The greatest love

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Nice and fuzzy...but not the greatest love

What Valentine’s Day means for a young, single and Christian man.

Today is Valentine’s Day, when traditionally romantic love is celebrated. And how beautiful that love! It draws two lonely hearts together and is the foundation of familial love, the subject of many lives made or broken, many poems and letters, much laughter and many tears. But the Bible passage (John 15:9-17) in today’s Our Daily Bread, a popular daily devotional website for Christians, has Christ focusing on a different type of love—the love between friends.

Contemporary celebration of Valentine’s Day has come under some criticism: that it is too commercialised and marginalises single people. Secular expressions of romantic love now dominate the western popular discourse on relationships, evident in pop songs, pulp fiction, films and TV dramas. Occasionally other kinds of relationships may emerge into our consciousness, such as friendship in the highly-acclaimed film “The King’s Speech” or different expressions of parental love in the controversial book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” But the dominance of romantic relationships in our social consciousness is so tyrannical that some single people have declared war against it—in some cases rising in arms*, with ire focused on this single day. Other singletons barricade themselves against the onslaught, perhaps using tactics suggested by my friend’s up-and-coming blog on relationships**.

Now, as Christians we are supposed to live a life of rebellion against worldliness, but not quite in the ways suggested above. In the passage Jesus defines the one type of love on Earth that has no parallel: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (v. 13). What a wake-up call! In a world that determines social success with how attractive one is to the opposite (or same) sex, or how much of a conqueror one is sexually, Jesus reminds us that the greatest love is love among friends, so deep that they are willing to lay their lives down for each other. The worldly world refuses to believe that there is a love greater than that, leading to quite interesting theories, even among Christians, that such love must be romantic love. An oft-debated example is the friendship between David and Jonathan in the books of Kings.

But Jesus says that love between friends is the greatest love because that is the love he loved us with when he went to the cross. Yes, the collective Church is the bride of Christ, but he lay down his own life for each and every one of us not as a husband, but as a friend. And his final command to us is: “Love each other as I have loved you.” (v. 12).

I am certainly not downplaying the role of romantic love; after all, the family is a beautiful expression of God’s love too. But for those of us who are single, let’s not be bitter against those who have partners, or seek to isolate ourselves from the world as if this day was made against us. Let Valentine’s Day be a day when we express our deep love for our friends, and above all, our Friend who loved us so much that he lay his life down for us.

 

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* The headline reads: “Single netizens up in arms against Valentine’s Day with five tactics, such as buying up every other seat in a cinema, or slapping the faces of men with partners on the street.”

** The title of the blog is: “A list of what to do on Valentine’s Day if you’re single.”

Egypt: Berlin Wall 2.0?

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Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Anti-government protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

The Arab pro-democracy movement could have as big an impact on international relations as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When asked about the impact of the French revolution, former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is widely claimed to have quipped: “It is too soon to tell.”

Of course, since President Mubarak’s sudden resignation was only a few hours ago, it is definitely too soon to say what the impact might be. In fact, since the beginning of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, even though I really wanted to write something, I checked myself. After all, events take time to unfold, and it is all too easy to comment on events prematurely. But now, I cannot keep silent. After all, this could be the Berlin wall moment for our generation! And like the fall of the wall, the pro-democracy revolutions in Arab countries could mean a fundamental shift in international relations, which since 9/11 have been couched in terms of “the west vs. Islam”.

I don’t believe that that conflict has ever been about religion; it has always been about different political interests. But wrapping that conflict in terms of religion has made it easy for Muslim autocrats to command loyalty and justify their oppression of their own people. “Democracy is an attempt by the west to impose Christian values on Muslims,” they tell their people, consciously or otherwise. “So obey us.” Words like that have to be backed up with some sort of action, which necessitates a hostile relationship with the western world. That same philosophy had been used by the Soviet Union, until it turned out that it was the communists, not the westerners, who made the people so fed up that they rose to overthrow those regimes.

But the revolutions in the recent months tell us that that is a lie. The ousting of neither Ben Ali in Tunisia nor Mubarak in Egypt have been engineered by the west. In fact, they have caught the western world completely by surprise, even causing alarm. It is no secret that western governments promote democracy with their mouths but support authoritarian governments with their hands, leading to mind-bogglingly stupid actions, such as offering help to suppress the demonstrations (as one French government minister did to Ben Ali).

The revolutions are somewhat good news for all concerned. After all, a lot of fear in the west about Islam is about how, if it is popularised, it is going threaten our rights to life and liberty. But the home-grown pro-democracy movements in Arab states prove (once again, since this has already been proven in the anti-government protests in Iran in 2009) that Islam is not a single behemoth that wants to trample on all things free. Western governments fret that democracy in Muslim states could mean the rise of anti-western Islamists, like the situation in Gaza or southern Lebanon. But those places are an extremely poor example—not every Muslim country is so inhumanely blockaded by a foreign power that is so blatantly favoured by the west, or at least by America. Tunisia and Egypt are relatively western-friendly societies, probably partly because so many western visitors go there every year. The likelihood of those populations turning decisively against the west and all it stands for is not very high.

So the Arab revolutions could pave the way for better relations with the west. Extremists will be forced further into a corner, as the legitimacy of their belief that terrorism against the west is the only way out of oppression is dealt a big blow. The Arab revolutions will signal to Muslims: “The west isn’t the cause of your problem, and neither is religion. The cause of your problem is your own oppressive government.”

But of course, all that is conjecture, and my probably wholly unrealistic hopes. Things can certainly get worse before they get better—or they get worse and stay there. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Eastern Europe endured a lot of pain to emerge from the rubble of communism and it is almost guaranteed that the Arab road to democracy is going to be as, if not even more, bumpy. After all, Gorbachev, Ben Ali and Mubarak all failed to hold on to power mainly because they refused to use force against their own people. But meet someone like Milosevic or perhaps Deng in China, who had no such qualms, and the situation could turn very nasty indeed. The military is now in control of Egypt, but thankfully its recent gestures have been peaceful and positive, whereas Tunisia has entered a more or less peaceful transition period.

So here is hoping for the best. The people have spoken. Let their voices be heard loudly and clearly forever more.

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I hereby sentence you to vote at the next election

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European Court of Human Rights

"I hereby order you to give your inmates the vote!"

The row over giving prisoners the right to vote is about two separate issues, and Britain should comply with the Court’s ruling.

Last evening the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a motion urging the Government to defy the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on giving prisoners the vote. The issue has triggered a heated debate, at least in Westminster village, on two separate matters – whether convicted prisoners deserve the privilege/right to vote and whether the unelected supranational court in Strasbourg can issue such a decree in defiance of the will of the nation’s elected representatives. Some Eurosceptics have even seized on the chance to call for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Convention of Human Rights, the treaty that will celebrate its diamond jubilee in 2018 and is the legal basis of the Court. The rest of the country, of course, is too absorbed in other matters, such as potential cuts to local councils, to care, but I will comment on it anyway.

Unusually for me, I don’t have a “clear” answer, at least to the first debate, the principle of allowing prisoners to vote. Both sides of the argument have equally valid points. Prisoners, by breaking their imaginary contract with society, have certain rights withdrawn from them, mainly personal liberty, and with good reason. On the other hand, they are human beings too, and certain rights apply regardless, such as the right to equal treatment and the right to a fair trial. Should the right to vote constitute part of that bundle of suspended rights?

Clearly, there is a case for either side, and I remain undecided. The only thing I will say regarding that is that although a prisoner is currently living with reduced rights, most will eventually be released into society, their right to vote will one day be restored. With that in mind, it is certainly right to prepare prisoners with the capability to participate in democratic society, perhaps having elected prisoners representatives to represent the interests of inmates in the prison (not sure if this happens now).

But without any clear-cut philosophy or school of thought to fall upon (democracies around the world have different attitudes to the matter), the current debate has been framed as a conflict between the democratically elected national Government and the distant, unaccountable Court in Strasbourg. Popular power, or authority from above?

Solely on the conflict of Parliament vs. Court, I side with the Court, and I believe that the ruling should be followed as a matter of principle. The European Convention on Human Rights is the most powerful human rights legislation in the world to date, and while some are suspicious of its intrusiveness, especially when certain cases are highlighted by the media, many forget that this treaty came as a response to one of the most severe and systematic transgressions of human rights in modern European history – the second world war and the holocaust. Human rights abuses are still rife throughout Europe, especially in ex-communist bloc countries. If long-standing signatories to the Convention such as the UK demonstrate that even it doesn’t respect the Court, it will be impossible for younger members to learn to comply. They will also learn that human rights are applicable only when it is popular or convenient, not when it is right. That is certainly not the image that Britain wants to portray.

People who advocate the withdrawal of Britain from the Convention are taking their Eurosceptic folly into even greater absurdity. They bemoan that the faraway Court is not accountable to the British public, but that is a ridiculous contention. The whole point of having judicial independence is so that popular accountability doesn’t enter the equation. Courts are meant to uphold the law without fear or favour, not pander to whatever is popular at the time. If the focus of the argument is altered to have a sole domestic dimension, one could argue that no British judge is “accountable” to the public, since none of them have to face elections.

Secondly, even though the European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg, the law that it is based on, and the people it serves, are very British, because Britain is willingly under the Court’s jurisdiction by being a party to the Convention. Arguing that a judgment of the Court is not valid because it is not based on British soil would be like saying that a court in London cannot rule on a matter that occurred in Kent, even though both places are subject to the same law and the presiding judges may come from outside Kent.

The House of Commons has understandably and legitimately expressed its opinion, but now is the time for the Government to do the right and proper thing by complying with the Court’s ruling, however “distasteful” it may be.

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