There was a time when "quality" could be used as a differentiator between products, people and places. A time when a person's word alone was sufficient to seal a deal. A time when the same item produced in two different places could be compared and a quality established as to which was superior. A period when "quality of life" was tangible not only in the balances one achieved between work and play, but measured by the conditions under which one lived; social, educational, political and environmental.
Of course, quality means different things to different people so I would not attempt a universal definition. I merely set out above a number of factors that bring the word to life, for me. So what is in my mind? (Not a lot, some would say, but I digress!).
As time has passed we seem to have become more willing to compromise on quality in the interests of speed or, worryingly, just "keeping the peace". Allowing standards to drop, for example, in written language. How I used to hate having my business letters reviewed by a third party before they were despatched - but it taught me to avoid ambiguity in my writing. Today we seem perfectly happy to receive letters that are not only written poorly in terms of grammar, but in a shorthand that leads to weird interpretation. I recall a number of years ago when a "circulation file" of already despatched letters came across my desk in another country, all signed by a Western executive. The letters were, frankly, awful and I went through them with a red pen, raising the hackles of the executive concerned who excused his work by saying that the typists were incompetent, would never change, and it wasn't that important anyway. My view was this was a "face" of the Bank, and it mattered to me. Point is - you do not have to give in to sub-standard work in the interests of either expediency or laziness.
Quality of air, at least in Hong Kong, is another issue where not being willing to address a problem head-on is creating present and future difficulties for the City. Whereas we are told by Government that overall air quality has improved in the last few years, try telling that to the pedestrians on Hong Kong Kong Island last week where roadside stations were registering pollution readings in excess of 160 - against an index that suggests at a pollution level of 100, people with heart and respiratory problems need to be extra careful. Air quality in Hong Kong over the last 30 years, probably like other cities, has declined. But I would argue that Hong Kong has worsened faster than most. Initially blamed on factories polluting the air across the border in Shenzhen (largely owned by Hong Kong businesses!), many of which have now moved or closed. Today is a holiday in Hong Kong, as a result of which I can see Kowloon albeit hazily from my window. Not something I was able to do last week from my office - which is nearer to Kowloon. This is because there is not so much traffic on the road today, or cars sitting with idling engines (not allowed, but which happens so that car owners can get into air-conditioned comfort). But it is estimated that more than half of Hong Kong's pollution is locally created - yet we have a Government that seems powerless to institute the changes necessary. This is not a new debate. In a speech I made in November 2006 I pointed to warnings that had been carried out 20 years earlier about the potential worsening of air quality in Hong Kong.
Quality of leadership is a subject on the lips of many today. Not necessarily from those who believe they could lead better, but those who are anxious to be well led. It doesn't matter where you look really - and I guess there are some potential bright spots but Britain wouldn't appear to be one of them. The BBC last week allowed the leader of the British National Party, a man described by a former Archbishop of Canterbury as a "squalid racist", to appear on television. The BNP's earlier manifestos called for the immediate deportation of 2 million non-whites from Britain, and the outlawing of mixed race marriages. They have now been forced by law to agree to allow anyone to join the BNP who wants to, and it will be interesting to see how this works in practice. The airing of the show was seen by some as a victory for openness and freedom of speech, but the implications worried me. An opinion poll carried out the following day indicated that 22% of people polled would consider voting for the BNP in an election. This was dramatically up from a rating of around 0.7% some months earlier. But they are not the only extreme right wing group in the world. Protectionism is more likely to raise its head in the face of job losses. Fast growing and young populations in some poorer economies will seek a better life - anywhere they can. As a result of which such nationalistic groups are likely to rise in number and popularity. It is not a prospect I relish.
So where does all this take us ... because the list can go on?
If we forsake "quality" because of some forceful bullies who operate in the financial, business, political and social world, and therefore abandon many of our standards, we will continue to decline. This will ultimately bring us down to the level of the lowest common denominator, inhaling air we can chew rather than breathe, and leaving no legacy worth having to our children's children.