OPINION – A Christmas Treat

As a Christmas treat, read Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a delightful morality fable, told superbly and charmingly. You can find an online modern-day translation of the Middle English original. The story: a resplendent, boastful, proud cockerel, Chanticleer, with a brilliant red coxcomb and golden talons, crows peerlessly in the morning sun, showing off to his wives and retinue of flatterers. This comes after a nightmare in which he dreamt of being caught by a predator; a warning. But now, full of his own self-assurance, he disregards the dream and crows like a king.

Waiting for him is the fox, ready to snap him up and eat him. The fox is smart, so he approaches Chanticleer quietly and flatters him with unctuous admiration of his good looks and his exquisite crowing. His flattery works: Chanticleer succumbs and crows with his neck stretched high and his body puffed up. The fox tells Chanticleer that his crowing is at its perfect best when Chanticleer’s eyes are closed, crowing for all he is worth. So the gullible cockerel shuts his eyes tight, whereupon the fox grabs him in his mouth and runs out of the farmyard, chased by farm workers and farmyard dogs.

But Chanticleer flatters the fox: you are a fast runner so why not turn round and boast to the farm workers that they will never catch you. Defy them to catch you! The fox succumbs to the flattery; he opens his mouth to shout to them, whereupon Chanticleer immediately escapes to a safe tree branch. Both parties learn their lesson, that gullibility, flattery, credulity and pride don’t work. As Chaucer writes ‘Lo, swich it is for to be recchelees/And necligent, and truste on flaterye’, i.e. look at what happens when you are reckless, sloppy and careless, and believe flatterers. As the saying goes, ‘pride cometh before a fall’.

Pride and flattery are dangerous. In Macau, we see these in showing off, having, giving and receiving face; a potent dynamic. Where else in the world would you see endless full-page media spreads of congratulations for some event or other. It’s not enough, in Macau, to be doing something; it has to be seen and trumpeted, for organizations and people to swell with pride. Where else in the world would you see hundreds of people attending an opening ceremony for some blown-up event and then disappearing after the media photo-taking, straight after the VIPs have scarpered.

Pride precedes disaster. Just two years after opening, Macau’s light rail transit system is now taking a six-month break from its colossal overload of a couple of thousand passengers each day, their private train, far below the 20,000 daily users predicted by the government. The light rail system was doomed to succeed, a matter of pride, and, like the fate awaiting Chanticleer’s nightmare warning, installed in the face of criticisms and warnings. Calls to scrap it, or even not to build it in the first place, were not heeded, and, to date, it is a costly white elephant; it does not even go round and round in a circle like a child’s toy train set. Now, after monstrous cost overruns, it has had an electrical tantrum and has stopped running. Methinks that pride has crept in somewhere.

Or reflect on Macau’s silent, cathedral-size Pac On ferry terminal, which opened with glory; the jewel of Macau’s maritime development. Macau prided itself on this massive edifice that now lies virtually empty, a monument to cost overruns, pride, money-grabs and showing off. 

Let us go further. Chanticleer Macau crows about its two decades of tourism, gambling and construction achievements, huge income and world-beating GDP. It has been raking in piles of money, spending it as if there were no tomorrow, and basking in the fawning congratulations of people from all walks of life, for its economic development. However, with inadequate societal risk analysis and action to prepare for economic downturns, progress towards diversification proceeded at the routine Macau pace, i.e. teaching a sloth how to go slow. Despite warnings, pride overtook preparing for the future. When the virus came along, the bottom fell out of the market. Plop. 

Flattery, pride, denial and negligence are rife in Macau. Maybe it’s my ungenerous view of the local culture of genuine cooperation, harmony and respect. But ask yourself: who are the Chanticleers, foxes and false flatterers in Macau and, dare one say, beyond? 

Silly me, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is just a story, a fiction.