Members Area

Introducing the FCC’s New Members: May 2021

An Everest mountaineer, a feng shui expert, a guidebook publisher and a raft of other “usual suspects” comprise the latest batch of new FCC faces.

 

Erika Behrens

I have been a consul at the German Consulate General in Hong Kong since last July and head of the Consular Section there. Together with my husband, Wolfhard, who is now retired, we have served in German embassies in Thailand, Zaire, India, Egypt, China and Switzerland. Our common hobby is travelling to learn more about political, economic and social issues worldwide. We hope to meet club members with the same interests and to better understand the environment in Hong Kong and beyond.

 


Isabel Lijun Cao

I’ve been in various roles with the media industry for more than 20 years, most recently as regional director at The Economist Group’s Hong Kong office. Previously, I worked as the head of editorial and programmes APAC at EuroFinance. I spent the first part of my career with Xinhua, as a foreign correspondent and senior editor in Beijing, Afghanistan and London. I’ve lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade with my husband and two sons. In my free time, I practice yoga. 

 


David Wan Chang

I was born and bred in Hong Kong and went to high school and college in Washington, DC. I am CEO of Franklin Templeton Investments and my career has included working at global banks and trust companies. I have also volunteered for special educational needs schools. I enjoy a cigar (okay, not at the FCC) with some single malts over a good chat with friends or, even better, journalists.

 


Blake Evans-Pritchard

I run the editorial team at Asia Risk, covering the derivatives markets, financial regulation and risk management at banks. I have been in Hong Kong for six years, and previously reported on international war crimes trials in The Hague. Originally from England, I have also spent time as a journalist in Africa and Europe. I also run City Trail Publishing together with my wife. We wrote the first guidebook to an independent South Sudan in 2011, and have published an expat guidebook to Hong Kong. We’re now compiling a Hong Kong for Kids guidebook.

 


Neil Gardner

I was born and schooled in the UK, but as an expat child, my father exposed me to African jungles and Arabian deserts. That lit my spirit of wanderlust, which brought me to Hong Kong – where I am the chief customer officer for Generali – via Australia, China, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand. I love Hong Kong. I don’t call it home, even though my children do, as they have lived most of their lives here. Instead, as the FCC has such an amazing atmosphere, I think I’ll call the club my second home.

 


Adam Harper

Like a lot of expats, I came to Hong Kong for a couple of years to get some international experience. That was in 2004. At the start of 2020, with an impeccable sense of timing, I started my own communications consultancy, Ashbury. I’m from the UK and married with two children – and another on the way. I started out as a journalist with EuroWeek and have also worked as a capital markets banker and corporate communications specialist. When I’m not working, I have a passion for rugby, skiing and the novels of John le Carré.

 


Mark Hayden

I was a military brat living between Taiwan and Washington, DC in the 1960s. After graduate studies in 1981, I went into banking in Taiwan and later supply chain management. I’ve been in Hong Kong since 1999 and love being a bridge builder between Eastern and Western cultures and business practices as the regional managing director for Cato Overseas. Mandarin is my first language (having attended Taiwanese schools from kindergarten) and my wife, Susan, is Taiwanese.

 


Klaus Koehler

I am a representative at Woodburn Accountants & Advisors, which specialises in inbound investment to China and Hong Kong. We offer companies a one-stop-shop approach to their corporate service needs. I arrived in Hong Kong in 1970 from my native Germany and worked in a trading company just as China was opening up to the world and when Shenzhen was a village. My travels have taken me throughout Asia, and in my 50 years here I have seen change at a speed that was unimaginable in my early days. 

 


Heidi Lee Oi Yee

I am a partner at Howse Williams focusing on mergers and acquisitions, public takeovers, and regulatory and compliance work for Hong Kong-listed companies. Born, bred and educated in Hong Kong, I am also the past president of Rotary Club of Hong Kong Northeast where I enjoyed devoting my spare time to charitable work and socialising with fellow Rotarians. I like hiking, baking and drinking, as it gives me time to mingle with friends. 

 


Justin Li

I am an aspiring architect raised in Hong Kong and Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto, and having returned to Hong Kong to be closer to my family and look for new opportunities, I became one of the key designers in the Ma Wan Old Village revitalisation project, which won the Silver Award in the Hong Kong Institute of Planners Awards 2020. In my spare time, I enjoy sketching, hiking and playing basketball.

 


Quentin Li

I was born in Canada, grew up in Hong Kong and returned to Canada to pursue my undergraduate degree. Four years in Montreal taught me not to mess with Canada’s winter, so I eventually returned to Hong Kong to pursue a career in finance. I’m currently a financial investment professional at Goldman Sachs Investment Management Division covering clients in Greater China. Outside of work, I enjoy playing basketball and collecting modern sports cards, in particular Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Luka Doncic rookie cards.

 


Jeremy Lightfoot

Having evacuated the British Virgin Islands as Hurricanes Irma and Maria approached in 2017, I lived out of a suitcase in New York, Cayman, London and Cyprus before finally arriving in Hong Kong. Originally a barrister, I run a litigation team for an offshore firm, Carey Olson, spending my days on disputes involving Asia and the Caribbean. My goal for 2021 is to learn to surf. If I declare that in writing here, I’ll have to learn in order to avoid embarrassment – peer pressure has its advantages, so please do remind me.

 


Patricia O’Rorke

I was born in Hong Kong and this is my fourth time living here. There’s obviously something pulling me back. I have been frequenting the club for 30 years with my generous friends and always felt at home here, so decided it was finally time to join myself. Originally from a nursing background in London, real estate has kept me busy from the late 1980s. I have been with Habitat Property for the last 11 years, and am now a senior consultant.  

 


Peter Parks

I am a staff photographer for Agence France-Presse and I see myself coming full circle, returning to Hong Kong after 16 years away as bureau photographer in Beijing, Shanghai and Sydney. I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1993 working as a freelancer, then joined the Hong Kong Standard before AFP in 1996. I covered the handover, bird flu, the economic crisis and SARS before leaving and now find myself returning to an even more serious pandemic and a whole new political climate.

 


Vasavi Seethepalli

I am thrilled to be part of the FCC. And even happier to have been in Hong Kong for the last 13 years, I couldn’t have chosen a better place. I started my editorial journey as a freelance writer. Later, I worked as an editor at Hong Kong Living and now I’m the publishing chair at the American Women’s Association, one of the oldest women’s communities in Hong Kong, where women from all walks of life inspire each other.

 


Priya Subberwal

I am a classical feng shui consultant with a background in interior design. My journey into this unusual field began with a glance at a zodiac coffee table book in 2006. Since then I have received formal Chinese metaphysics training in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong. I started my own company, Disha Limited, in 2016. Disha comes from the Sanskrit word dishadhara, which means ‘direction’. I am also a yoga enthusiast, bridge player and an avid reader. I love the FCC’s vibrant atmosphere and enjoy socialising with friends and family there.

 


Lee Sullivan

I am a lead educator at the English Schools Foundation and the International Baccalaureate Organisation for Asia-Pacific. Egypt, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates and the UK are among my previous work locations. Having married into the local Cantonese culture, I now consider Hong Kong my home. My wife, Daisy, and I are delighted to join the FCC, as we are attracted by its history, culture and heritage. Most of all, we look forward to connecting with the FCC intelligentsia and engaging with fellow members.

 


Michael Tomordy

After a brief spell in the British Army, I moved to Hong Kong from London in 1997 to work on Chek Lap Kok Airport with a consulting engineering and architecture practice. I am currently the managing director of Engage Asia, a resilience and technology consultancy, and am a technical expert at international arbitrations. My hobbies include mountaineering and I summited Mount Everest in 2018. I am currently training for a one-month self-supported expedition to Alaska in May and may be seen dragging a tyre to the Peak.

 


Robert Wrixon

Like many Irish people, I have spent years abroad. After eight years in US universities, I lived in Japan, Malaysia, Australia, England and Mongolia before settling down for the past nine years and getting married in Hong Kong. As managing director of Starboard Global, I invest venture capital in critical mineral exploration and normally travel to project sites around the world. I make time for Ireland/Munster rugby, Arsenal football, and the wife and two kids (not necessarily in that order). Looking forward to meeting and boring the pants off many FCC members in future.

Recipe: How to Cook Singapore Noodles

Born and bred in Hong Kong, Executive Chef Johnny Ma knows a thing or two about Cantonese cuisine. Ma shares his recipe for Singapore noodles, so you can recreate this popular FCC dish at home.

A staple at Cantonese restaurants around Hong Kong, Singapore noodles don’t actually come from Singapore. Despite the name, these noodles were invented right here in the city after the British introduced curry powder.

The combination of rice noodles and curry powder felt like a nod to the Indian-Chinese fusion dishes in Singapore, so they named it after the city-state. Today, Singapore noodles can be found in Cantonese communities across Australia, Canada, the US and India.

Typically made with springy vermicelli noodles, Chinese char siu, scrambled eggs, prawns, bell peppers, soy sauce and a dash of curry powder, these humble noodles hit the spot when we’re craving a quick yet satisfying meal after a long day.


Chef Ma’s Singapore Noodles Recipe:

Ingredients:

30gm shelled prawns (submerge in ice water with 2 tbsp sugar for 30 min)

1 tsp canola oil

2½ tsp Asian fish sauce

150g dried rice stick noodles

2pcs cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp Shaoxing wine

¼ tsp ground white pepper

¼ tsp sugar

2½ tbsp vegetable oil

2 eggs, beaten with two pinches salt

30g char siu (Chinese roast pork)

¼ medium onion, thinly sliced

½ medium red bell pepper, julienned

10g carrot, julienned

1 tbsp curry powder

30g ham, thinly sliced

30g squid

10g scallions, thinly sliced 

2 tsp sesame oil

salt to taste

Instructions:

  1. Drain and pat shrimp dry with paper towels and place in a bowl. Add 1 tsp canola oil and 1/2 tsp fish sauce. Mix well and set aside in the refrigerator.
  2. Place rice noodles in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Drain noodles in a colander, rinse with cold running water, then drain until dry. Using scissors, cut the bundle of noodles in half.
  4. Place garlic in a small bowl and add soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, white pepper, sugar, and 2 tsp fish sauce. Mix well and set sauce aside.
  5. Heat 1 tsp vegetable oil in a wok or nonstick skillet over high heat, tilting to swirl oil, until smoking.
  6. Add eggs, cook undisturbed for about 10 seconds, and then gently move the eggs with a spatula until they start to firm. Break the eggs into small pieces, then set aside in a large bowl.
  7. Add shrimp and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add roast pork and onion. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds.
  8. Add red bell pepper and stir for 30 seconds, then add carrots. Add 1 tsp curry powder, season with salt. Cook, tossing, until evenly distributed. Scrape wok contents into bowl with eggs.
  9. Wipe wok clean. Heat 2 tbsp vegetable oil on high until smoking. Add noodles. Stir-fry for 30 seconds.
  10. Add sauce and remaining curry powder. Stir until evenly distributed. Add eggs, shrimp, roast pork, squid, ham, and vegetables. Stir-fry for 30 seconds.
  11. Season with salt and remove from heat.
  12. Add scallions, drizzle with sesame oil, mix well, and transfer to a large serving bowl.
  13. Enjoy!

Meet Alex Lee Shu Yeung, FCC Financial Controller

Alex Lee, 53, has been a friendly face in the finance department over the past three decades.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you find your way to the FCC?

Alex Lee: I was born here in Hong Kong, then later studied in the UK. In 1986, I became a cost controller – planning and controlling the budget – at the Hong Kong Hilton. That’s where I met a financial controller from the FCC, who invited me to join her team. That was 1992, almost 29 years ago.

 

What does your current role entail?

AL: Our department covers audits, purchasing, cost control and members’ accounts. I am very interested in the fluctuations in our numbers because it shows our progress and challenges.

To control prices, you need to consider the cost of the ingredients, how the chef designs the menu, and how they use the ingredients. If the price is too high, members won’t order it.

 

Which events have been the most significant during your years at the FCC?

AL: Apart from the Handover and the New Millennium party, one that really sticks in my mind is the Po Leung Kuk Charity Ball in 2002. We hosted 1,000 guests and had to make all the arrangements, including selling raffle tickets, auction items, and working with many different agencies. It was a brilliant success, and I learned a lot.

 

How has the pandemic affected your work?

AL: The biggest impact has been the group restrictions – no evening dining or events, like the New Year’s Eve party. We anticipated some of the holiday events might be restricted and, luckily, saved on costs.

Overall, COVID-19 restrictions are tough to plan around but we admire the leadership from General Manager Didier Saugy, who has kept a tight rein on costs and identified opportunities to generate new revenue. This has kept us on track – as well as newly inspired – during the crisis.

 

Anything else you’d care to add?

AL: I’d like to thank the Board, especially Treasurer Tim Huxley, who has given me so much support. And I’d like to thank all nine of my staff, a couple of whom have been with us for more than 20 years. The back office is a wonderful place to work.

 

Put your calculator down for a second. Where do you go to relax?

AL: While the beaches are closed, I have been cycling with my wife and children in the New Territories. My son is 10 and showing signs of becoming a mathematician; my daughter, who prefers painting, is two years younger.

I’m thrilled because she’s learned to ride her bike without stabilisers, so we can go further and faster now. My favourite cycling trail is Sha Tin to Ma On Shan because of the water, fresh air and nature.


Did you know?

The FCC has a spacious back office on Arbuthnot Road, where the club’s finance, HR and IT teams work. The office used to be in the basement but was relocated in 1998 to make more room for member facilities.

 

50 Years On: The Table Tennis Match That Changed the World

Ping-Pong Diplomacy signalled the first step towards normalising US-China relations back in 1971. A youthful Jonathan Sharp was on hand to watch events unfold.

A ping-pong exhibition match in Beijing in 1972, which Nixon attended. A ping-pong exhibition match in Beijing in 1972, which Nixon attended. (Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration)

As an increasingly anxious world watches the growing rivalry between the United States and an ascendant China, this April marks the 50th anniversary of an event in Beijing (then Peking) that changed the world.

Dubbed ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’, a surprise Chinese invitation to a US table tennis team to visit the People’s Republic of China paved the way to mending long-severed ties between the world’s most powerful nation and its most populous.

This Chinese initiative, a classic example of Beijing using sport to further its political and strategic goals, was hailed as one of the key developments of the late 20th century. One could also argue that Ping-Pong Diplomacy sowed a seed for the tensions that strain China-US relations today.

It was my good luck to cover the match for Reuters. The global landscape then was far removed from today, with China slowly emerging from the grimmest days of the Cultural Revolution, one of the deadly political storms unleashed by Mao Zedong. The economy was blighted, and the horrors of famine were recent. Today’s glittering modernity was a distant dream.

China also faced an increasingly hostile Soviet Union, formerly an ally, with clashes erupting along their mutual border. Beijing needed better relations with the US as a counterweight to the Soviets.

An American table tennis player (right) trains with a Chinese player in April 1971 in Beijing An American table tennis player (right) trains with a Chinese player in April 1971 in Beijing. (Photo: AFP)

For its part, the US was still mired in the Vietnam conflict. President Richard Nixon had pledged to bring his country out of Vietnam with honour. Improving relations with China, which strongly supported North Vietnam, might help to achieve that goal. And Nixon, too, sought to use Beijing to counterbalance Moscow – or to “play the China card”, as was said at the time.

Both China and the US had motives to thaw their relations, which had been in near deep freeze since the Communists took power. As a symbol of that enmity, American passports were marked “not valid for travel into or through mainland China”.  

The curtain rose on the diplomatic breakthrough in Nagoya, Japan, host to the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in March 1971. Following an encounter between the flamboyant American player, Glenn Cowan, and China’s star Zhuang Zedong, Mao approved an invitation for the Americans to visit China.

The US accepted. Diplomats in Japan blacked out the not-valid-for-China line in the Americans’ passports. But how to get to Beijing? Such was China’s isolation, there were no flights from Japan, or indeed from virtually anywhere.

The American delegation of players poses with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. The American delegation of players poses with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. (Photo: AFP)

The Americans flew to one of the few entry points, Hong Kong, and walked across a diminutive railway bridge at Lo Wu which marked the border. From there, they took the train to Guangzhou and flew to Beijing.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy was also a turning point for Reuters, and for me personally. At that time the news agency had no reporters in the Chinese capital. Its last China correspondent, Anthony Grey, had endured 27 months of vindictive and humiliating house arrest between 1967 and 1969.

His ‘crime’? British authorities in Hong Kong had arrested pro-China media workers during the 1967 unrest, and Grey’s confinement served as retaliation. His books about the ordeal, Hostage in Peking and The Hostage Handbook, remain riveting reading.

Famous American caricaturist Mort Drucker depicts Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon playing ping pong. Famous American caricaturist Mort Drucker depicts Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon playing ping pong. (Photo: © Mort Drucker)

Reuters was offered a reporter’s visa to cover the table tennis drama, and, as I came off an overnight shift at the 24-7 China-watching Hong Kong bureau, I was told to collect the precious document from the China Travel Service office in Kowloon. The next morning, carrying my typewriter and £300 (which would be roughly HK$20,600 today) from the Hong Kong bureau chief, I crossed the Lo Wu bridge for my first, long-sought glimpse of Mao’s China.

I was not in the least apprehensive about being the first Reuters staffer in China following Grey. I was just excited. The situation in 1971 had changed since 1967 when the Cultural Revolution mayhem was at its height.

So it was that in the afternoon of 14 April, in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Premier Zhou Enlai told the Americans that they had “opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people”.

Zhou also took a question about the hippie movement from shaggy-haired Cowan. Wearing a floppy yellow hat, a T-shirt emblazoned with “Let It Be” and purple, bell-bottomed trousers, Cowan cut an incongruous figure amid the almost universal drabness of 1971 China.

The Premier said he didn’t know a lot about it, but “youth wants to seek the truth and out of this search, various forms of change are bound to come forth… when we were young, it was the same too.”

To my alarm, Zhou also remarked on the presence of a Reuters correspondent, and that he had read my reports about China. I asked Zhou what he thought of them. He said some reflected the reality, and some didn’t. ‘I’ll take that,’ I thought.

The actual ping-pong matches seemed fairly routine. The Chinese players far outclassed the nine Americans, who were handed a few games for the sake of face. But ultimately this wasn’t really a sports event.

Glenn Cowan (right) shakes hands with China’s Zhuang Zedong after catching a ride with the Chinese ping-pong team in Nagoya, Japan on 4 April 1971. Glenn Cowan (right) shakes hands with China’s Zhuang Zedong after catching a ride with the Chinese ping-pong team in Nagoya, Japan on 4 April 1971. (Photo: The Asahi Shimbun)

Filing copy in those days of primitive communications – even telephone calls from China to the outside world were an on-off possibility – was a numbingly slow process. It involved handing in my typed stories at a post office where the words were counted and paid for on a per-word basis. Hours would elapse before my prose – doubtless well-examined by censors – reached Reuters in Hong Kong.

Speaking of surveillance, I made a point of giving my minders the slip to see the house where Grey had been incarcerated.

I repeated this token gesture of remembrance regularly when I was based in Beijing with Reuters in the 1970s and ‘80s. What Grey endured must not be forgotten.

After Ping-Pong Diplomacy, events moved rapidly. US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to Beijing in July in 1971 and Nixon made his historic visit to China in February the following year.

Jonathan Sharp covering Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971. Jonathan Sharp (right) covering Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971.

Full diplomatic relations between China and the US followed in 1979, just as China was opening to the world and gearing up to become the economic – and geopolitically assertive – powerhouse that it is today.

Few could have imagined 50 years ago during Ping-Pong Diplomacy that China is now better known for its aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy.


A Dispatch from 1970s China

“Breathlessly describing everything I saw during my visit – as first-time reporters to China tended to do – I mentioned in an article, written in Shanghai while on my way home from the capital, that I had seen two Chinese airforce jets take off at the airport.

Being an aviation buff, I recognised them as a Chinese-manufactured version of the Russian MiG-19. About an hour after filing, and clearly, before the story had been transmitted, an official approached me and said, deadpan, that there was one sentence in my report that was “not in the best interests of Sino-British relations”, terming Reuters as a British government organ.

He indicated the few words about the jets. Hastily, I deleted the offending reference and heard nothing more. International relations remained undisturbed.”

– Jonathan Sharp


Jonathan SharpIn 30 years at Reuters, apart from Ping-Pong Diplomacy and three years based in Beijing, Jonathan Sharp covered wars in Vietnam, Lebanon and Angola, the release of US hostages in Iran (1981), Steve Jobs’ launch of Macintosh (1984) and the release of Nelson Mandela (1990).

What Really Happened to Flight MH370?

Former FCC President Florence de Changy’s trenchant investigations point to a secret cargo, an abortive hijack and an insidious cover-up. By Kate Whitehead

Malaysian Airlines

Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board. Halfway across the Gulf of Thailand, the Boeing 777-200ER vanished from air traffic controllers’ screens without a trace.

The plane’s mysterious disappearance captivated the world. And when French daily Le Monde despatched its Hong Kong-based correspondent, Florence de Changy, to Kuala Lumpur to report on the tragedy, the veteran journalist had no idea it would lead to an ongoing, seven-year investigation and two books on the subject. The first, Le Vol MH370 n’a pas disparu [‘Flight MH370 Did Not Simply Disappear’], was published in 2016 by Les Arènes, and has since been translated into three languages with updates in each edition.

This February, HarperCollins published her second book: The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, which connects the dots from de Changy’s earlier investigations to reach a bold conclusion that discredits the official narrative as a sophisticated, costly and clumsy fabrication.

To recap: Within days of flight MH370’s disappearance, authorities claimed the plane had made a U-turn, flown back over Malaysia, and eventually crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. This was the official narrative when de Changy began reporting in Kuala Lumpur. But when she returned a year later to revisit the story, she discovered many details that simply did not add up.

De Changy speaks with Malaysian Member of Parliament and Admiral Mohamad Imran bin Abdul Hamid.

“One year on, and there was not a shred of tangible evidence that the plane had crashed in the Indian Ocean – not a single piece of debris,” says de Changy, who served as FCC President from 2017 to 2019.

Her follow-up story for Le Monde revealed gaping holes in the official narrative, which got people talking. In May 2015, the paper sent de Changy to the Maldives, where people claimed they had seen the doomed plane. Such tips turned out to be red herrings, but her articles caught the attention of French publisher Les Arènes, which led to a book deal.

“I started moving at a different speed, slower and more thoroughly,” says de Changy of writing Le Vol MH370 n’a pas disparu, which was published on the second anniversary of the plane’s disappearance.

When official pronouncements didn’t add up, de Changy sought out insights from sources across Asia.

Step by step, interview after interview, de Changy discovered a wealth of intelligence and incongruencies. Among her interviews, the investigative reporter spoke with MH370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s friends and family members. They protested what they considered a smear campaign to ultimately blame him for the incident by questioning his mental health and fitness to fly. De Changy also gained access to confidential records, which convinced her the pilot had been okay to fly.

Her investigation concluded that MH370 made no U-turn; no one turned off the transponder and ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems), as claimed by then Prime Minister Najib Razak; the plane never crashed in the southern Indian Ocean; and the subsequent Australian search operation was either a deliberate or passive act of diversion.

During her investigations, she assembled new evidence that begins to tell a different story and raises new questions. “I identified a problematic [electronic] cargo on the plane that had not been X-rayed, which is a no-no in terms of aviation safety, that was delivered under armed escort to the airport,” says de Changy. The 2.5-tonne cargo was listed as “Motorola walkie-talkies and chargers”.

Flight MH370 Possible Flight Paths Click to enlarge. (Sources: BBC; Australian Transport Safety Bureau Flight Path Analysis; Florence de Changy)

She also learned two US AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control Systems) – mobile, long-range radar surveillance and control centres for air defence – had been operating in the area. At first, de Changy didn’t know what to make of this information. But after the Chinese edition of her first book came out in 2017, a military contact informed de Changy about AWACS’ jamming capabilities, which led her to a hypothetical conclusion.

“Plan A was likely a cargo ‘confiscation’ [hijack] operation to cloak the plane with two AWACS, force it to land, seize the problematic consignment and let it fly off again. The plane would have landed in Beijing with a slight delay, a non-event by Chinese aviation standards at the time,” says de Changy, who points out that the intercept was planned at the point where Vietnamese air traffic controllers would have assumed responsibility from their Malaysian counterparts.

She believes this scenario – based on a mix of sources, clues and confidential documents – failed because the experienced pilot refused to go along with Plan A. “Disaster happened when the plane was about to reach Chinese airspace at around 2:45 am off the northern coast of Vietnam,” she says. De Changy hypothesises that the plane was shot down accidentally or intentionally – most likely by a fighter jet, missile or a new laser-guided weapon system that the US had been testing in the region.

In The Disappearing Act, de Changy continues to untangle this complex web of information. It’s well worth reading to find out about the confidential documents and off-the-record conversations that led to her conclude the official narrative is a fabrication.

A recovered Boeing 777 wing flap identified to be part of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on display during a memorial event in Kuala Lumpur on 3 March 2019.(Photo: Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

She admits there are still some gaps in the story but hopes that this book could motivate more people to come forward. De Changy has been trying to track down the two Cathay Pacific pilots who flew over the Vietnam coast the day after the incident and reported spotting a massive field of metallic debris to air traffic control. Although this report is in the official log, she hasn’t been able to identify the pilots. Perhaps this might be the time for them to speak up, says de Changy.

“With each [new book] deadline, you revisit documents, relaunch new leads, call people again – with every deadline, the story improves, and you push it further,” says de Changy.

Any book that dares to debunk the official narrative is bound to invite grilling, and de Changy has braced for criticism. However, she has already received many endorsements to date. Veteran investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein says the book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand one of the greatest mysteries of the 21st century.

A family member of a Chinese passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
protests outside the Yonghegong Lama temple in Beijing. (Photo: Goh Chai Hin / AFP)

Clare Rewcastle-Brown, editor-in-chief of London-based Malaysian investigative news outlet Sarawak Report, adds that it “demystifies the world’s greatest aviation secret”, and the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet comments: “with ruthless forensic skill, Florence de Changy has dismantled and discredited the official versions of what happened to the ill-fated flight MH370”.

De Changy concludes: “As a senior journalist who has worked in this part of the world for some time, I could not let this nonsensical story go unexplained. I feel a duty to get to the bottom of it.”

Visit the FCC to purchase ‘The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370’. Better yet, leave your book at the front desk and de Changy will swing by to sign it for you.


Screen Time

In 2018, de Changy’s French publisher sold the rights of Le Vol MH370 n’a Pas Disparu for an Anglo-French TV mini-series.

“It’s a five-figure deal [in euros], but don’t forget that in most of these deals, you share about half with the publisher, and your agent usually takes a cut as well,” says de Changy.

Looking ahead, de Changy may also have another TV project in the works in the US.

In 2019, when Harper-Collins announced the publication of her new book, Netflix expressed great interest. But the project remains under wraps for now.


Kate Whitehead is the author of two books about the Hong Kong underworld and has worked for the South China Morning Post and Discovery magazine. She contributes to local and international media outlets while also working as a psychotherapist.

How to Better Support Domestic Workers During COVID-19

Given new challenges posed by the pandemic, Enrich HK’s Esther Guevara shared advice for those who employ a foreign domestic worker. By Morgan M Davis

Domestic Helper in Hong Kong (Photo: May James / AFP)

Most people could use a financial refresher course in the best of times, let alone a pandemic. And financial planning is even more essential for those whose purse strings are stretched a bit tighter, such as Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

Esther Guevara, a financial planning trainer at Hong Kong charity Enrich HK, joined the FCC for a Zoom session on 17 January entitled “A Personal Finance Workshop for Domestic Helpers”, in which she outlined the major financial stressors impacting FDWs during the pandemic.

Many migrant workers have come under increased pressure to send more funds home than usual, due to family members who are ill, unemployed or underemployed, says Guevara. On top of this, workers are also concerned about layoffs, isolation, mental health challenges and potential exposure to the virus.

During her FCC workshop, Guevara focused on the how-to of financial management for FDWs, but also shared a number of tips for employers as well. In a conversation after the webinar, Guevara emphasised the importance of a trustful, supportive employer-employee relationship where both parties acknowledge the new challenges posed by the pandemic and check in with each other regularly.

“This is the time when there shouldn’t be a barrier. Yes, you’re going through a crisis, but your employee is [also] going through a crisis and sometimes [you] don’t know about it,” says Guevara, alluding to the fact that many FDWs may not share any details about what’s going on behind the scenes – their family or financial situation – if an employer does not inquire.

“The problem with employer-employee relationships is sometimes that [FDWs] are very shy or proud,” says Guevara, noting that many would not ask for help unsolicited. An FDW also may not be comfortable sharing, even if an employer asks about their personal struggles.

Even so, Guevara suggests that employers try to maintain an open, non-judgemental dialogue. Start by asking how the FDW is faring in light of the international health crisis. It’s likely they may be feeling isolated due to social restrictions, anxious about catching the virus, worried about family members back home, or facing greater financial pressures. By asking specific questions about family, friends or how the pandemic has impacted the worker, employers can get a better sense of their wellbeing.

Guevara says such conversations are less about additional financial support, although that is an option if it is well thought out and discussed, and more about connecting with an employee as a person – offering an opportunity to voice concerns about an unemployed spouse, sick parent, or child at home without a laptop for virtual classes.

Esther Guevarra Enrich HK’s financial planning trainer, Esther Guevara, shared her tips with FCC members on 17 January.

“As an employer, you can help them process it and break it down,” says Guevara. She also recommends mapping out short- and long-term financial goals together, which can help workers feel more in control.

Have they made a plan to meet their family’s immediate needs? How much do they need to set aside for long-term goals, like sending a child to school or starting a business in their home country later in life? What about retirement? Talking about budgeting – how much money can be saved, sent home or spent – and timelines can empower workers and alleviate some stress.

“Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to financial scams and get trapped in a cycle of debt,” says Guevara. “We believe that financial and empowerment education is a life-changing solution to challenges faced widely by migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.”

Additionally, Guevara recommends giving FDWs plenty of space and time to be alone. If a worker lives in your home, it is easy to fall into an unhealthy pattern where he or she starts working longer hours while Covid-19 social restrictions remain in place. However, workers need time off – perhaps even more than usual – due to the unprecedented emotional, mental and financial strains caused by the pandemic.

If as an employer you are concerned about an FDW seeing their friends in public and possibly exposing themselves to the virus, Guevara recommends clear communication around expectations while referring to Hong Kong’s latest guidelines.

“When you have an employer and employee living in the same household, trust and communication are key,” she says. “If difficult conversations need to be had, whether it’s about finances or social distancing, we always advise employers to adopt a calm, non-judgemental approach.”

For more information or guidance, Enrich HK runs workshops for both employers and FDWs. The charity’s advisers can also answer questions about social security schemes and retirement planning for workers in Hong Kong.

3 Off-the-Beaten-Path Hiking Trails to Try in Hong Kong

In honour of Earth Month in April, we head into the wild with FCC member Michael Tomordy. The intrepid mountaineer shares his top off-the-beaten-path trails for every fitness level with Gayatri Bhaumik.

Ma On Shan At 702 metres, Ma On Shan (meaning ‘Saddle Peak’) is the tenth-highest mountain in Hong Kong. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Michael Tomordy does not shy away from a challenge. The English risk advisor, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1997, has spent the past two decades exploring the territory’s hiking trails – even completing the MacLehose, Wilson, Lantau and Hong Kong trails in one go.

His passion for hiking eventually led him to the exciting world of mountaineering. In 2018, Tomordy summited Mount Everest and, this May, he plans to tackle Alaska’s Denali mountain, the highest peak in North America at 6,190 metres.

Before the pandemic, you could often find Tomordy leading small group treks in Nepal. But due to travel restrictions this past year, he’s concentrated his efforts on rediscovering Hong Kong’s diverse landscapes, dense woodlands and craggy peaks. Here, Tomordy shares three of his favourite trails for a break from the city.

Take it Easy: Lamma Island Family Trail

Lamma Island Try the Lamma Island Family Trail for an easy, family-friendly hike. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Lamma Island is home to one of Hong Kong’s most leisurely hikes, though those who want a challenge have plenty of add-ons – like tackling Mount Stenhouse – to ensure they break a sweat.

Start with a ferry ride from the Aberdeen typhoon shelter to Mo Tat Wan, a small village on Lamma’s eastern coast. From there, you’ll head west along the water, where plenty of scenic views, historic sites, and snapshots of island life await.

Stop for a seafood feast and learn about fisherfolk culture in Sok Kwu Wan village before heading up into the hills on the way to Yung Shue Wan. The island’s main town is the perfect place to grab a Yardley Brothers craft beer by the water and explore the shops before hopping on the ferry to head home. 

Difficulty level: Easy
Time commitment: 2-4 hours
Highlights: Ancient “feng shui” forests, peaceful coastal paths, South China Sea views, Tin Hau Temple and the Kamikaze Cave, from which the Japanese planned to launch suicide missions during WWII.
Best for: Beginners and families.
Where to eat: Stop for seafood in Sok Kwu Wan or enjoy vegetarian bites at Bookworm Cafe in Yung Shue Wan.

Step it Up a Notch: Tai No Ancient Trail

If you’re looking for equal parts culture, wilderness and coastal views, this trail checks all the boxes. It starts from Ma On Shan Country Park barbecue site, heads over
The Hunch Backs peak and then on to Ma On Shan.

From there, you’ll join the MacLehose Trail before making your way onto the historic Tai No Ancient Trail – meaning “Big Brain”. You’ll need a little bit of mental (and physical) agility to tackle this stony path, which winds through the deserted village of Tai No. There’s a Tsang Clan ancestral hall, a few remaining cottages and two century-old stone mills (once used to press sugar cane) overtaken by twisting vines and spongy moss.

After Tai No, the path reconnects with the MacLehose Trail via a steep downhill section. It’s tricky, but you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Sai Kung’s coastline before wrapping up on Clearwater Bay Road. 

Difficulty level: Medium
Time: 4 hours or more
Highlights: Challenging peaks, moss-covered stone mills, feral cattle, Sai Kung views.
Best for: Hikers with a few miles under their belts.
Where to eat: There are no cafes along the way, so bring plenty of snacks and water. Then head to Sai Kung Village for seafood, burgers, Mediterranean cuisine or a healthy smoothie bowl.

Tough Stuff: Ngong Ping 360 Rescue Trail

The Ngong Ping 360 Rescue Trai The Ngong Ping 360 Rescue Trail. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Ngong Ping 360 Rescue Trail, which runs from Tung Chung to the Tian Tan Buddha, is among Hong Kong’s most demanding. From Citygate Mall, make your way to the Tung O Ancient Trail, which leads the rescue trail.

You’re on the right track if you see the Ngong Ping 360 cable cars overhead and a flight of endless steps stretching up the mountainside. The stairs are as unforgiving as they look, but you can’t beat the views over Lantau along the way.

What’s more, the trail – which was initially built to service the cable cars – passes by lush woods, ravines and streams. Call it a day when you reach Ngong Ping or add another challenge. For a gruelling workout, continue up and over Lantau Peak, head down to Tung Chung Road, then hike over Sunset Peak all the way to Mui Wo. Alternatively, follow Lantau Trail Sections 4-6 to Tai O.

Difficulty level: Hard
Time: Between 4 hours (ending at Tian Tan Buddha) and 6 hours (ending in Tai O).
Highlights: Quiet trails, trees and rivers, airport views, spectacular sunsets, Tian Tan Buddha, and many options to modify the hike.
Best for: Highly fit, experienced hikers.
Where to eat: If you finish in Tai O, head for one of the hole-in-the-wall eateries by the jetty. In Mui Wo, enjoy a beer and pizza by the water at The Kitchen.


Michael Tomordy shares his tips for a safe, rewarding day on the trails: 

  1. Download a Hong Kong hiking app – I use Hiking Trail HK, Maps.me, and AllTrails.
  2. Don’t push yourself too hard on a new trail. Be mindful of your hiking experience and the weather.
  3. Keep your phone fully charged. When not in use, turn it off or use “aeroplane mode” to save juice.
  4. Carry emergency hydration salts, snacks, chocolate bars and water.
  5. Pack a hot drink in a small thermos for warmth in case the weather turns bad.
  6. Always pack an extra T-shirt and a fleece.
Michael Tomordy Michael Tomordy submitted Mount Everest in 2018.

How to Manage Stress During the Pandemic and Beyond

Kate Whitehead, a journalist and therapist, discusses how to manage stress during the pandemic and beyond. By Morgan M Davis

The pandemic has been traumatic for people all around the world. Like many places, Hongkongers have experienced varying degrees of isolation, uncertainty and job insecurity on top of existing political turbulence and high-pressure lifestyles. 

FCC member Kate Whitehead has seen firsthand how such stressors can impact one’s mental and physical wellbeing through her work, where she bridges two taxing worlds: journalism and psychotherapy. As a qualified psychotherapist and TRE (tension- and trauma-releasing exercises) provider, Whitehead helps clients manage stress and anxiety.

She also writes about mental health and wellness, winning the Mind HK Awards 2019 for the best English-language journalism coverage of mental health issues. We caught up with Whitehead to hear more about her advice for coping during times of uncertainty: 

 

Why did you decide to become a therapist?

Kate Whitehead: As a journalist, the work I most enjoy is writing profiles, sitting down with someone for a one-on-one interview and getting to know how they came to be the person they are and what makes them tick.

Often, people open up and share things they’ve told very few people. That led to an interest in psychology, so I did a master’s in counselling three years ago.

My focus is still journalism – it accounts for about three-quarters of my work – and the rest of the time I work as a psychotherapist at a [general practice] clinic in Central, Optimal Family Health. I’m especially interested in working with people with stress, anxiety and trauma, which is what led me to become a TRE provider. I practice TRE at the Clarke Clinic in Central.

Kate Whitehead (second from right) leads a TRE session.

What is TRE? What are the benefits? 

KW: It’s a series of seven exercises that help the body release deep muscular patterns of stress or tension. These simple exercises activate a muscular shaking process in the body, known as neurogenic tremors, which allow the body to shake off built-up stress.

TRE is great for reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep, easing muscle and back pain and healing old injuries. Recently, I’ve been working with a lot of people with back and shoulder pain and sleep issues and seeing good results. My close friends are now regular ‘shakers’ and I’m on the TRE Board of Directors.


How has the pandemic impacted mental health?

KW: The pandemic, coming hard on the heels of months of anti-government protests, means everyone’s mental wellbeing has been impacted to some extent. A lot of people are experiencing anxiety or low moods, which has brought mental health issues much more out in the open and helped lift the stigma.

 There is so much uncertainty at the moment: when will we be able to travel? When will a vaccine we trust be available? When things feel out of our control, it’s helpful to focus on whatever we can control.

And we must try to find a way to process our emotions. Sure, have a Netflix binge if you need it, but every now and then give yourself space to process all the baggage that comes with this pandemic.

 

Kate Whitehead Journalist and psychotherapist Kate Whitehead.

What can Hongkongers do to manage stress?

KW: There is plenty of research to show that exercise improves not only your physical health but also your mental health. Regular exercise helps reduce anxiety and depression; it also releases chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. The gyms may be closed [off and on], but the country parks are open and they are free.

 

You’ve written two books: one about Hong Kong crime, the other on sex work. How do you manage your own mental health when writing about difficult topics?

KW: The crime writing was a while ago and I’ve moved on to less grisly pastures since, but I do still enjoy a good murder story. My great de-stressor is exercise; I’m a big hiker and as soon as the gyms reopen, I’ll be a regular at Fivelements again.

I also meditate and do TRE at least twice a week. And I’m lucky enough to have some really good, close friends who not only keep me on an even keel but make life fun.


Kate’s Toolkit

Practice better mental wellness with these tools.

 

VIA Reports

Start your wellness journey with this free self-assessment, which identifies your strengths and how you can apply them to improve your life. viacharacter.org

 

Headspace

A go-to for those new to meditation, Headspace makes the practice more approachable with intro classes and goal-oriented sessions. headspace.com

 

Calm

One of the most popular mindfulness apps, Calm shares techniques to improve sleep, focus, self-improvement and more. calm.com

 

Seven

This fitness app offers a range of seven-minute workouts that you can squeeze into your schedule to boost your mood and mental health. seven.app

 

Covering the Coup: A Myanmar Journalist Reports

Chronicling events on the ground in Yangon, Arakanese freelance journalist Kyaw Hsan Hlaing documents an increasingly perilous situation for journalists in the wake of the military coup.

Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on 14 February 2021. Protesters demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on 14 February 2021. (Photo: Sai Aung Main / AFP)

When my roommate woke me early on 1 February with the news that the Myanmar military had staged a coup, I knew that as a freelance journalist focused on human rights I could become a target.

I deactivated my Facebook account and requested the editor at an international news agency delete my byline from some sensitive articles. I then walked around my neighbourhood in Yangon to assess the situation. Everywhere I looked, I saw faces lined with fear and uncertainty.

The military had cut my phone connection, but I heard a rumour that one network was still accessible. I queued for two hours to buy a SIM card, but when I activated it, there was still no connection.

After the military, known as the Tatmadaw, arrested former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi along with more than 40 party officials and declared a year-long state of emergency, everything has taken on a new urgency, including my work as a journalist.

I have been reporting around the clock as a freelance journalist for publications such as TIME, Al Jazeera, The Nation, The Globe and Mail, VICE News and Columbia Journalism Review in partnership with US-based freelance journalist, Emily Fishbein, who worked in Myanmar from 2015 to 2020. During the pandemic, we teamed up to write about armed conflict between the Arakan Army and Burmese military in my native Rakhine state, and we have been working together since.

A protester holds a sign denouncing Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing. A protester holds a sign denouncing Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing. (Photo: STR / AFP)

As hundreds of thousands demonstrate and workers strike across every sector, the situation continues to intensify. On the weekend of 13-14 March, at least 51 people were fatally shot, bringing the total number of people killed by soldiers and police since the coup up to at least 126. According to The New York Times, more than a fifth of those killed have been teenagers.

More than 2,100 people have been arrested as of 13 March, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and many of those arrested were seized from their homes at night without a warrant. At least 37 journalists have also been taken into custody, of whom 15 have not yet been released; some were beaten upon arrest while others have been forced to sign statements that they will cease reporting.

Five prominent Yangon-based media groups have had their licenses revoked and been banned from publishing on any platform, while the military has raided several media outlets, seizing computers, printers and data servers. The military is arbitrarily shutting down the internet and people, including me, are afraid to make phone calls in case the calls could be intercepted.

Living under an authoritarian state is all too familiar in Myanmar, which was run by a military junta from 1962 to 2011. During those years, we were surrounded by informers, the government heavily censored media, and SIM cards were kept prohibitively expensive (upwards of US$7,000 in 1998 and around US$625 in 2011), effectively cutting off our access to news and information.

(click to enlarge)

In 2011, the military began a series of reforms, and in 2013, the price of SIM cards dropped hundredfold. I accessed the internet for the first time from my village in Rakhine, on the western coast, in 2014.

Myanmar held openly democratic elections in November 2015, bringing the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto leader, and although the country was still under a 2008 military-drafted constitution allowing the civilian government and generals to share power, many expected that the NLD would counter the military’s influence and champion democracy and human rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi dashed expectations when she defended the military against charges of genocide for its treatment of the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice in 2019. Other ethnic groups in Myanmar, including my own Arakanese community (also called ethnic Rakhine), have also been bitterly disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn human rights abuses that the Tatmadaw allegedly committed, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Instead, her government backed the Tatmadaw’s violent campaigns, blocked humanitarian access and, in parts of my home state and the neighbouring Chin state, imposed the world’s longest internet shutdown. Since 21 June 2019, government restrictions on the internet left more than 1 million people without effective access for 19 months.

The NLD government also cracked down on press freedom, especially in Rakhine, where it blocked independent media access to conflict-affected areas beginning in 2016, with the exception of pre-arranged reporting tours in which journalists were accompanied by government minders.

During the first four years of NLD’s term (2015-2018), 67 lawsuits were filed against journalists and media personnel. Of these, 31 were filed by the government; 11 by the military; and the rest by religious institutions, tycoons, employers, political parties, armed groups and others, according to a report in May 2020 by Yangon-based freedom of expression organisation Athan.

Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reports from Yangon. Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reports from Yangon. (Photo: Supplied)

More than three dozen journalists were charged with defamation, while others were charged with supporting an unlawful association or alleged terrorist group when they reported on conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations or interviewed their spokespersons.

In 2018, the government imprisoned Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for possessing classified information which police had planted on them, while they were reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine. They spent more than 500 days behind bars before being released in May 2019 under a presidential amnesty.

While the NLD severely curtailed media freedoms, sinking back under military rule is far worse. Almost immediately, journalism became significantly more challenging and dangerous, and the obstacles and risks are increasing by the day.

On 27 February, I went out to observe the protests. After being tear-gassed, I ran away from authorities only to come face to face with a soldier. He pointed a gun at my friend and me, and said: “Back up, I don’t want to shoot you.” I backed up and immediately left the area.

Mapping Myanmar (click to enlarge)

What’s more, the social media landscape has changed dramatically. Facebook, which serves as the main source of news, information and communications in Myanmar, has long been used as a vehicle for hate speech and disinformation targeting ethnic minorities. After the military banned the platform on 4 February, users migrated to Twitter en masse. Two days later, the military banned Twitter as well, but users have continued to access both platforms using VPNs.

Since the coup, my Twitter followers jumped from around 400 to nearly 10,000 as of 14 March. I have not received any serious threats online, but I worry that malicious activity will increase; I have already seen a spike in trolling and disinformation on the platform.

Intermittent internet shutdowns have posed another major problem. While the hazards of social media are many, the lack of online access is even more dangerous. Unable to check reliable news sites or trusted sources to verify information, I have been calling my contact at a fact-checking civil society organisation for assistance. But now she sometimes replies that the group is unable to confidently make an assessment.

With arrests increasing, I have taken extensive precautions to protect myself. On the day of the coup,I wrote down important phone numbers in my notebook, using nicknames in case police confiscated it. Next, I deleted all contacts, audio files and messages from my phone. I began using VPNs to access the internet, and when I use phone data, I switch between four SIM cards to separate my personal communications, browsing history, and reporting work – a strategy I had also used when reporting on armed conflict in Rakhine.

It is now much harder to collect information as I do not trust anyone. When I go outside, I am constantly alert and carefully assessing my surroundings. Informers could be anywhere, and I often feel as though people are watching me, especially when I carry my camera. I don’t talk openly with taxi drivers, and I am guarded even with my closest friends and family. I avoid talking deeply about my feelings and personal information as well, because people could take advantage of my vulnerabilities.

I see journalism as a tool to solve problems, and I am particularly motivated to promote human rights and social justice. I aim for in-depth coverage which prioritises the inclusion of diverse voices and especially those who are vulnerable and marginalised, such as displaced people, ethnic minorities and those living in remote areas.

Covering under-reported stories during an emergency, I feel an extra sense of responsibility to document what is happening accurately, informatively and effectively. Despite the risks and pressures, I feel strongly motivated to persevere.

The most important thing is to share what is happening in Myanmar with the world. My country has already gone to the dark side, and if we don’t do anything, we may become trapped under military control for a long time. We need to end this situation and find our way to the light. Each of us has our own role to play. For me, that role is journalism.

As told to Emily Fishbein, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing’s reporting partner, on 14 February 2021. Last updated on 14 March 2021, hours after the military issued a directive to telecoms operators to shut down the internet indefinitely in the country.


Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is an Arakanese student, researcher, and freelance journalist from Myanmar’s Rakhine state who focuses on peace, human rights; and social justice. He works to share on-the-ground situations of diverse people, especially marginalised and conflict-affected minorities, with the international community.

Emily Fishbein is an independent freelance journalist who worked in Myanmar from 2015 to 2020 and plans to return when she is able. She seeks to share diverse voices and perspectives, especially highlighting underreported stories. Prior to writing, she worked with refugees and displaced persons in Myanmar and the United States.

 

How ‘Fake News’ Legislation Stifles Critical Reporting

In February, Chief Executive Carrie Lam floated the possibility of ‘fake news’ legislation. But experts warn such laws have been used to silence government critics around the world. FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart examines the issue.

Fake News Trump Duterte (Illustration: Noel de Guzman)

One of the first steps taken by the military government in Myanmar after it seized power in the February coup was to announce legislation aimed at curbing online “misinformation” and “disinformation”.

If enacted, the cybersecurity law would punish anyone who spreads what is commonly known as “fake news” with three years in jail. It would also oblige internet service providers to remove content deemed to be offensive by the new government and disclose journalists’ personal data.

Like all “fake news” laws, it casts a wide net, covering any content “causing hate or disrupting unity, stabilisation and peace”.

Both disinformation and misinformation – two often conflated concepts – fall within the scope of the law. Disinformation is fabricated and designed to deceive, while misinformation can be the result of a genuine error that is shared without malicious intent.

Criminalising both in a single law would provide a powerful weapon for the Myanmar government in its battle to stifle dissent, serving as an example of why “fake news” laws have proved popular with authoritarian leaders around the world. Such laws send a blunt message: Contradict our version of the truth and we’ll throw you in jail.

In Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam told the Legislative Council this February that her administration’s priorities include tackling “doxing activities, hate speech, discriminatory remarks and false information on the internet”.

First, however, the government will focus on dealing with the invasion of privacy and doxing – the publication of personal details online – as it would be difficult to push through anti-fake news legislation quickly.

“In recent years, governments worldwide have tried to tackle the problems with legislative or administrative means,” she said. “Since this encompasses a wide spectrum of issues involving some degree of sensitivity, we will study the experiences and practices of other countries and places.”

As Lam noted, she is not the first government leader to recognise the offline dangers of online disinformation and conspiracy theories. Bogus claims about COVID-19 have claimed countless lives, and Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about election fraud drove the rioters who stormed the US Capitol in January.

The term “fake news” has come to become a popular way of describing all kinds of bogus information shared online. Trump transformed the phrase into a cudgel with which to attack critical media coverage, and it was gleefully seized upon by authoritarian leaders around the world.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha (right) attends the launch of the Anti-Fake News Center in Bangkok on 29 October 2019. (Photo: Handout / Royal Thai Government / AFP)

“When President Trump called CNN and The New York Times fake news, a week later President Duterte called Rappler fake news,” says Maria Ressa, founder of the Philippines-based online news outlet.

Governments from Nicaragua to Russia have introduced fake news legislation that usually shares three common features: it is ill-defined, hastily adopted, and used to attack media freedom and freedom of speech.

Some countries created entirely new laws while others amended existing legislation to target what they regarded as disinformation. In one high-profile example, Egyptian authorities arrested

Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein in December 2016 for “disseminating false news” among other accusations. He was released, without charge, in February 2021 after spending four years in jail.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave governments a further pretext to stifle critical voices. Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and one of the leading critics of “fake news” legislation, said a second wave of fake news laws has been part of what he called the “COVID crackdown”. “It’s a global phenomenon,” he said in an FCC Zoom discussion I hosted in June 2020.

Jailed Journos (Source: CPJ)

Ostensibly designed to prevent the spread of dangerous rumours about the disease, the laws have instead been used by both autocratic and democratic governments “to impose sweeping restrictions on civil liberties and to enhance the power of the state,” Simon said. “This ranges from expansion of surveillance to restrictions on assembly to new laws restricting the dissemination of ‘fake news’ which the governments feel is up to them to determine.”

Simon has also expressed concern about what comes next. After the pandemic, we could be left with a world where “state power is strengthened, civil liberties are weakened, accountability is reduced. We have to be mindful that it is playing out before our eyes,” he said.

When it comes to how to legislate against the spread of fake news online, Malaysia and Singapore provide contrasting examples. Embroiled in the multi-billion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) embezzlement scandal, the government of then Prime Minister Najib Razak – who was later imprisoned for 12 years – rushed through a fake news law in April 2018.

The legislation imposed a six-year jail term for the dissemination of news that was “wholly or partly false” and was widely seen as being aimed at suppressing coverage of 1MDB during an upcoming election campaign.

I spoke on a “fake news” panel in August 2018 with Malaysian Member of Parliament Nurul Izzah Anwar, who accused the Najib government of wanting to create a “Ministry of Truth” – that is, an Orwellian department of government devoted to suppressing unpalatable facts and promoting propaganda.

Fake News Laws Infographic (Credit: International Press Institute)

Nurul Izzah, daughter of prominent opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim, said that “fake news” laws in Southeast Asia would “only strengthen the hands of the authoritarian”. Najib lost the election to Mahathir Mohamad in May 2018, and the new government later repealed the law.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Singapore, the government took a more systematic approach to adopt its own fake news law. A select committee interviewed 65 witnesses and organisations and received 170 written representations before producing a 279-page report and a set of recommendations for the Singaporean parliament.

I met the chairman of the committee, Charles Chong, when we spoke at an Asia-Europe Foundation forum, entitled “Exploring the Battlefronts of ‘Fake News’”, in Brussels in October 2018. He presented a convincing case for the need to take action against disinformation, and the committee findings that he shared at the meeting were far from a surprise:

“We have considered and recommended that the Singapore government consider new legislation, which will disincentivise deliberate online falsehoods and even impose criminal sanctions for malicious actors,” Chong said during his presentation.

Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in May 2019 and it came into effect in October that year. The law gives any government minister the power to declare online content “false” and order a correction notice to be published on the offending web page. Contravening the act can result in a five-year prison sentence or a fine of up to S$1 million (around HK$5.87 million).

Freelance journalist Kirsten Han, at that time editor of the independent news site New Naratif, gave five hours of evidence to the select committee, related to her work in facilitating information sessions on the issue of “fake news” and “deliberate online falsehoods”. She also filed a written submission, which urged the committee to consider non-legislative solutions, such as media literacy and greater transparency since “disinformation campaigns thrive in an information vacuum”.

Al Jazeera Producer Mahmoud Hussein Egyptian authorities imprisoned Al Jazeera Producer Mahmoud Hussein from December 2016 to February 2021 for “disseminating false news”, among other accusations. (Photo: Khaled Desouki / AFP)

According to Han, the government had only been going through the motions with its public consultation. “They already had something in mind and were looking to direct people towards their conclusion,” she says.

What has been the result? According to Human Rights Watch, the Singapore law has been used “primarily against content critical of the government or its policies”.

An online FCC panel discussion on 9 February 2021 with Maria Ressa, BuzzFeed Media Editor Craig Silverman and the Asia Global Institute’s Alejandro Reyes showed just how difficult it is to find a workable solution to the fake news problem.

It is an immensely complex issue, and the stakes are high. But one thing seems clear: fake news laws, at least in the form that they have been adopted so far, are not the answer.

“I can’t think of one actual past piece of legislation in this area that has necessarily worked out well,” says Silverman, one of the leading experts on the fight against disinformation. “The big trend I’ve seen is you have authoritarian governments seeing this as an opportunity to criminalise dissent and to criminalise actual independent critical reporting.”


Eric Wishart is the First Vice President of the FCC, a member of the AFP news management, and has just finished writing a book about the global impact of fake news, conspiracy theories and propaganda.

 

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