Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong’s public housing should cater to the masses, as Singapore’s does

CommentInsight & Opinion

Wilson Wong says instead of tinkering with stop-gap measures to ease the shortage of good quality, affordable housing, the government must redefine the nature and purpose of its public programme


Housing is an emotive issue that is deeply embedded in Asian psyches. In seemingly space-challenged Hong Kong, it has effectively become a citywide obsession, dominating many mealtime conver­sations and tête-à-têtes.

While not matching Hong Kong in fervour, land-scarce Singapore [1], too, has its share of housing angst. Both cities try various ways to optimise land use. What distinguishes the Lion City from the Fragrant Harbour is the former’s considerable success in housing the bulk of its population in relatively affordable, high-quality public housing.

In 2016, about 30 per cent of Hong Kong people lived in government-subsidised rental flats while another 16 per cent lived in flats they bought at a subsidised price. The newer flats, both for rent and sale, are actually of relatively high quality, comparable and in some cases superior to those offered by the private sector.

Many Hong Kong residents live in shabby private housing, which includes subdivided apartments in economically depressed areas such as Sham Shui Po. Government statistics reveal that, in 2015, some 200,000 people were living in 88,000 subdivided flats across Hong Kong.

The key advantage of public housing is obviously cost, with monthly rentals going for around HK$2,000 (for a flat for two to three people), while maintenance and management charges are waived. In a city with the dubious distinction of being the world’s priciest housing market for seven years running, this cost advantage is attractive.

However, owing to ineffectual policymaking, there is a dearth of these flats. This acute shortage is reflected in the average waiting time of nearly five years.

Solving Hong Kong’s public housing problem involves a lot more than merely allocating more land for housing. In the short-to-medium term, it could involve more rigorous means testing, so as to ensure scarce public flats are granted to families that have a greater need for them. Currently in Hong Kong, there are about 900,000 households (based on household income statistics) that are eligible for public housing; in a typical three-person household, the income and total net asset limits are HK$22,390 and HK$433,000 respectively.

Thanks to recently tightened rules, affluent public housing tenants will be required to leave if their household’s monthly income or asset level exceeds certain thresholds; under the current system, this would include households with incomes of more than five times the preset limit, and those with total assets of more than 100 times the limit.

In the past, tenants had to give up their flats only if their income and assets both exceeded the limits. Thus, many well-paid individuals could continue to live in public housing by claiming their household assets fell short of the limit. In 2016, at least 26,000 relatively affluent households were living in public housing.

The recent tightening will make it harder for these well-off tenants to stay on. In fact, the thresholds could be tightened further, particularly that for the asset limit. The Housing Authority should constantly review its policy and eliminate any loopholes for exploitation.

Hong Kong simply cannot afford to have relatively well-off families (or lawmakers with a monthly income of more than HK$95,000) occupying space meant for the financially challenged.

To surmount this problem, the Housing Authority could consider building two categories of public housing – one for the relatively well-off and another for the less well-to-do. The premium paid for the higher-end public housing could be used to augment public estate facilities or even to build more public apartments. Both types of public housing should be located in accessible, safe and vibrant neighbourhoods.

Overcoming Hong Kong’s housing problem requires more creativity and boldness than stop-gap measures such as building container homes. Evidently, the provision of high-quality public housing is a costly business, but in a city buffeted by rising income inequality and its accompanying social tensions, it is a price worth paying.

Singapore is evidently the star pupil when it comes to the provision of world-beating public housing. About 85 per cent of Singaporeans live in government-subsidised flats which they own; in truth, these flats are sold on 99-year leases, but that should be sufficient for most cases. The government agency responsible for this superlative housing scheme is the Housing Development Board (HDB).

The city state shrewdly realised from the outset that the provision of affordable quality housing is the bedrock of a strong and stable society. When the board was first founded in 1960, its strategic objective was to provide accommodation for the impoverished. But, within a few years, it changed course to become a provider of mass-market housing.

With this masterstroke, the Singapore government effectively gave every citizen a stake in the country’s prosperity, in the process, cementing the ruling party’s power for the next five decades.

The fact that the government owns the bulk of the land in Singapore (currently around 90 per cent) makes the implementation of an ambitious nationwide public housing strategy all the more viable.

Of course, there are tight constraints on the purchase and sale of these so-called HDB flats, in an effort to curb speculation and keep prices accessible, or to support social aims. For instance, priority is given to married couples while singles are permitted to acquire these apartments only at the age of 35 or above.

HDB flats vary in size, and are generally more spacious than the ones available in Hong Kong. For instance, even a small three-room flat (two bedrooms and a living room) is a generous 650-700 sq ft (typical cost: US$250,000 to US$300,000) while an executive apartment is around 1,400 sq ft; these flats are also located in safe estates with many amenities (such as schools, bank branches, medical clinics, food centres, shopping malls, and bus and train stations).

By contrast, smaller apartments in Hong Kong cost significantly more. For instance, even a small flat of around 300-400 sq ft in Sha Tin, New Territories, could cost around HK$5.5 million, or US$700,000. The acquisition of this minuscule apartment would also require a 30 per cent down payment, rendering home ownership in Hong Kong increasingly out of reach for its youth, particularly those without parental support.

The far-sightedness of Singapore’s public housing system was instrumental to the country’s success. It realised right from the beginning that solving a city’s housing woes is critical to ensuring the country’s long-term stability and economic progress. To put it bluntly, even disgruntled (but well-housed) people are less likely to stage mass demonstrations, if they (being economic stakeholders) are concerned about the potentially deleterious impact on their city’s economy and property prices.

Moreover, the success of Singapore’s public housing policy was due to a highly effective top-down approach, a feat that Hong Kong (long accustomed to a laissez-faire system) would have considerable difficulty in replicating, should the city choose to do so.

To succeed, Hong Kong would have to forge a bold new path, which would involve building more public housing with multiple tiers (somewhat akin to Singapore’s), and implementing effective means testing to ensure optimal allocation, while concurrently imposing measures to discourage speculative activities.

More importantly, the authorities in Hong Kong need to define categorically the nature and purpose of public housing, both of which Singapore firmly established in the early days of its successful housing agenda.

Wilson Wong Kia-onn is an assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Banking at Chu Hai College of Higher Education

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Hong Kong schools can learn from the flexible education system in Finland

CommentInsight & Opinion
Elbert Lee says ideas for education reform for test-focused Hong Kong schools lie in the deeply humanistic system of Finland, which values individuality and recognises the role of ‘more knowledgeable others’ in the community in shaping values and personality


They were called the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and A-levels. No less frightening than the latter-day Territory-wide System Assessment or its replacement, the Basic Competency Assessment, these exams were lasting nightmares for many in the Hong Kong education system of the 1970s. The times are changing. We are looking for a more enlightened education system with teaching methods that are less test-driven. The government is sending teachers abroad in search of a pedagogy equally welcomed by schools, parents and students – and effective in producing citizens able to satisfy the demands of a fast-changing technological world.

One place that holds the key to education reform is Finland, a country known for its telecommunication technology and whose students, according to the World Economic Forum, have quietly led the world for many years in academic performance. Recent reports said Hong Kong would soon be sending a team of teachers to learn from Finland the secrets of pleasant and effective education.

Students in Finland are not taught in terms of traditional subjects but learn to solve real-life problems by drawing on relevant subject areas, helped by teachers who are experts in these areas. There are no tests, certainly a radical departure from subject-based teaching where students can perform by just rote learning. But, learning from real life and no tests, is that all there is to it?

Perhaps not. Underscoring Finnish education is a deeply humanistic element. Early education places a high priority on attention to other people’s needs, and on giving respect regardless of socio-economic background.

Teachers emphasise respect for each child’s individuality and unique path in development, in contrast to more competitive forms of education where students are urged to outperform peers and where the casualty is often their self-esteem, seen by many as sources of future psychological problems.

The emphasis on individuality in the learning process does more than just maintain healthy self-esteem: it allows for “selective social learning” – the idea that children have preferences as to whom to learn from in specific areas and at different stages of development. And they learn best when their preferences are met. The flexibility of the Finnish system and its respect for individuality not only allows for selective social learning but possibly encourages it, with learning partners choosing each other to exchange and co-explore specific domains of knowledge and values.

The teachers and others that children choose to learn from are sometime referred to as “MKOs” or “more knowledgeable others” – a term coined by the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky to highlight the social nature of knowledge acquisition. MKOs, be they teachers, peers, social workers, or members of a religious order, often serve as trusted alternative sources of values outside the family. In traditional cultures, they can be wise aunties and uncles or godparents, “beacons of reference” during a person’s life development.

The recognition of MKOs is especially relevant for Hong Kong, where parents and family closeness are sometimes overemphasised, with parental values and judgment overriding those from sources outside the family. This makes it difficult for a child to learn from other MKOs and, as a result, hinders their development.

In my teenage years, when I faced troubles in my family, I could always talk to a member of a religious order whom I trusted, and explore sensitive issues beyond the knowledge of my parents. This way, I acquired a different view of the world, an important alternative to that of my family. Alternative ways to see the world and oneself can be a key to the psychological well-being of students.

What the Finnish system can teach us may not only relate to methods of instruction and tests, but the importance of relationships between the “significant actors” in education: schools, teachers, students and parents.

This is particularly needed in a society like Hong Kong, where many schools are inclined to operate on business models rather than professional ones. Teachers are pressured to meet parental demands and conform to parental values, rather than serve as a critical and independent source of values and knowledge, thus minimising the benefit of teachers as MKOs.

Finnish teachers are said to be highly professional and respected. I interpret this to mean not only that they are trusted by parents, but also that parents do not see them as pliable instruments to meet their idiosyncratic wishes with respect to their children.

Scrolling down my Facebook page, I saw beautiful picture posts on Finnish education: students talking and reading amid spacious, light-infused, postmodern North European architecture. The next day, a student of mine posted this message on her page: “Individual and family differentiation – a life lesson to learn.” I traced the words to US psychiatrist Murray Bowen, who suggested that the first step in growth and learning involved psychological differentiation from the family. This is done through the community – a host of MKOs emerging at different stages of development and allowing a child to select what to learn and who to learn from. Could this be the key to Finnish education?

The social side of schooling is critical to learning. Seen this way, tests and methods of instruction are put into proper perspective. And perhaps to test or not to test is not as critical to learning as is often portrayed in the media. Certainly, some teaching methods may be more useful than others in the current economic context. But their effectiveness will depend on the social learning matrix.

A good education system, instead of only emphasising how to teach and what to test, would work to strengthen and facilitate the school as a community, recognising that learning can only be meaningful and effective when the “significant actors” of the education system are different from each other, and that these differences are respected and appreciated.

Elbert Lee is an adjunct member of the faculty at Upper Iowa University, Hong Kong campus, where he teaches cognition and human development

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Hong Kong will embrace mobile payments – eventually

CommentInsight & Opinion

Ken Chu says it will take time for Hongkongers to adapt to using mobile phones to pay for goods and services, as they need to overcome the habit of using the Octopus card, as well as security concerns


I often hear people deplore that Hong Kong is lagging so far behind mainland China in technology because mobile payments like Alipay and WeChat Pay are not widely available. More accurately, Hong Kong has just started to play catch-up in mobile payments.

To be fair, Hong Kong is not an innovation and technology backwater. It may be true that we do not have a robust innovation and technology industry and market, or giant e-commerce and tech companies. But, as far as innovation, science and technology are concerned, we do quite well.

Indeed, our universities, two of which are among the top 50 in the world, often achieve groundbreaking discoveries in scientific research projects. Sadly, ordinary folks are unaware of them.

Hong Kong is also among the top innovation start-up hubs globally, according to a world-leading US research group. The issue here, then, is not so much whether Hong Kong is lagging behind in innovation and technology but how quickly mobile payments can dominate the consumer market.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah attributed our attitude to mobile payments to our successful Octopus card.

Launched in 1997, the Octopus card was hailed as a pioneer in contactless, cashless payment methods. Over the years, Hongkongers became accustomed to using the card to pay public transport fares, buy goods at supermarkets and pay at fast-food stores. It is also easy to top up the value of the card at any convenience store in the city. Old habits die hard, and it will take time and incentives to get people to change.

Decades ago, “Don’t leave home without it” was a popular advertising slogan for a credit card commercial, summarising the usefulness of such a card. Today, smartphones have acquired the same status and become a daily necessity. In mainland China, it is even said that it wouldn’t be a problem to leave a wallet at home but one absolutely cannot leave home without a mobile phone; they can be used to buy almost anything, anywhere in the country. The ubiquity of mobile phones provides fertile ground for the growth of the mobile payment market.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the world, yet its mobile payment market is still in its infancy. One reason often cited is security; in fact, the secretary for innovation and technology once said in a radio interview that he preferred an Octopus card to any e-wallet because of the security risk. However, stored-value smart cards like Octopus are not as convenient and versatile as most mobile payment apps and methods. With the latter, there’s no need to carry a card; instead, just use an enabled mobile phone to make the payment.

There is another challenge to the growth of the mobile payment market in Hong Kong: privacy concerns. Some people shudder at the idea that an electronic mobile payment service provider can learn when and where a user has made a purchase or transaction, as well as what they bought.

The mobile revolution is sweeping the globe because of its tremendous convenience. A thriving mobile payment market will surely empower the fintech industry. If Hong Kong is to hang on to its status as an international financial centre and innovation hub, the city must embrace mobile payment technology, to bring benefits to the government, economy and individuals. For the government, tax evasion and money laundering can be largely eliminated. For businesses, a more attractive and effective consumer incentive scheme can be structured to expand its market share. And, for individual consumers, convenience is the biggest benefit.

It will take time for Hong Kong consumers to truly appreciate the convenience of mobile payment apps but I am confident that the scheme will soon be widely adopted in the city; after all, Hongkongers are highly receptive to new things.

Dr Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

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People-first transport system eludes Hong Kong even as other cities race ahead

CommentInsight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer finds it hard to understand why, with its wealth of information and financial resources, the Hong Kong government is not adopting any of the bold ideas that are giving advanced societies cleaner air and a higher standard of living


Hong Kong’s top officials travel the world for meetings and to look for new ideas. They see and experience the best and our trillions of dollars in spare cash makes it easy for them to adapt and adopt.

Yet, on any given working day at rush hour, our so-called premier districts of Central and Causeway Bay are bottlenecks of people and vehicles, congested, polluted and unpleasant. The conclusion can only be either that the people who run the city on our behalf don’t much care about us or that they’re part of the sector of society that prizes cars as a status symbol.

It’s a different story in major cities in Europe and North America, where there’s a push for people-first downtowns. Roads are being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and, increasingly, electric cars. Public transport systems are being expanded. It’s all in the name of clean air, healthy living and, yes, “people first”.

Even Singapore has caught on. The government has announced it would stop issuing additional licences for cars and motorbikes from [2]February, keeping growth at zero per cent, because there simply wasn’t enough land for more roads. The move is in addition to taxes and fees that make car ownership in the island nation among the world’s most expensive.

Hong Kong has the same land scarcity problem, but our car numbers are going up. Some 11,955 additional private vehicles were registered from January to August, compared to 15,151 for all of 2016. Hong Kong has long been near the top of global lists of cities with the most vehicles per kilometre of road. Street-level air pollution hits unhealthy levels in the busiest districts numerous times a year.

There aren’t any new plans to make changes, either. A much-delayed road tunnel from Central to Causeway Bay has long been touted as the solution to congestion on Hong Kong Island. It has been given as the reason there’s no need to introduce electronic road pricing in Central; there’s no alternative route, the explanation goes, so no need to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, London and others.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan doesn’t even see any urgency about raising the first-registration tax for new car purchases, believing it to be a last resort and favouring soft approaches like discouraging ownership by making public transport more user-friendly. Keep in mind that this is a man who contended last month that car ownership was rising because young people were unable to afford homes and were buying cars instead to “ let body and soul wander off once in a while”. Well, if this is the guy in charge, those of us who want a better city are obviously fated to be bitterly disappointed.

But let’s be positive and believe that our government has our needs and desires at heart. Our leaders may be unelected, but they’re among the highest-paid officials in the world and they’re using our tax money, so they have an obligation to do right by us, surely. I’m not being naive here, simply mindful that a refusal to get with global trends will make Hong Kong ever more backward in the eyes of potential expatriates, tourists and forward-looking residents.

For inspiration, think Singapore or Vancouver, where a 10-year vision for better transport is under way. We can go even better with Oslo. The Norwegian capital is on course to keep its inner-city car-free by 2019. Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Milan have similar, though smaller-scale, plans. In Oslo, the first of its on-street parking will go later this year, to be replaced by wider footpaths and cycle lanes. The focus is on walking, cycling and public transport. This is the future we need, not more of the same and worse.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post