Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Carrie Lam has squandered her good start as Hong Kong chief executive with recent missteps

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2018-02-05

Alice Wu says the chief executive began well in office but her refusal to mediate between opposing camps in the legislature and her defence of Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng have betrayed Hong Kong people’s hopes

It has been reported that Huang Lanfa, a deputy director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, has praised Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for having got off to a good start since taking office.

Well, technically, Lam did have a good start. She began her term with a pretty high rating, as the public was euphoric over the end of Leung Chun-ying’s reign. She pulled off a few clever political manoeuvres as the chief executive-elect: her courtesy visits to Beijing’s liaison office, the office of the foreign ministry and the People’s Liberation Army garrison were delicately handled and clearly signalled that she intended to do things differently.

On her first day, she allocated HK$5 billion to education – a smart move as no one would object to more resources for that sector. It’s up there with “kiss the baby” in terms of political sure-wins.

And so Hong Kong did feel tentatively renewed. Reaching across the political aisle to get the support of the opposition and ticking an election pledge off her list in her first week of office was indeed a good start. At the time, the public held out some hope for Lam’s ability to “heal the social divide”.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. Being insensitive to the Rohingya crisis and making her first trip to Myanmar to talk business made Hong Kong look bad. Refusing to mediate between rival camps in the legislature over proposed changes to their rule book made Lam herself look bad. It exposed her unwillingness to mend divides. So her comments on “improving the executive-legislative relationship” as “the first thing the government will be working on” were just talk. When the opportunity presented itself to play the role, she passed.

The latest controversy over Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng-wah is now way out of hand. I’m glad that Lam has found a BFF in Cheng, so much so that Lam has repeatedly stuck her neck out for Cheng over the illegal structures in her homes. When the secretary for justice breaks the law, it is not tolerance, which Lam aggravatingly keeps asking the people for, that we need. What the public needs is to know that officials will do the right thing. Cheng, along with Lam, failed miserably. Cheng can chalk it up to her political inexperience, but what’s Lam’s excuse?

Lam feels she can relate to Cheng when it comes to “being too busy to handle private affairs”. But as chief executive, her priority – and the theme of her entire election campaign – is to “connect”, relate to the common folk, and not the privileged few who think that breaking the law should be tolerated.

With her “tolerance” for illegal structures, Lam has not only compromised her own integrity, but also the trust – the little there was to begin with – people have in the government and her relationship with her “friends” in the legislature. There is no doubt that Cheng is manna from political heaven for the opposition, and they will ride the abomination that Cheng has managed to become in just weeks for all it’s worth.

How quickly this city’s first female chief executive reverted back to her lead-tainted water buck-passing bureaucratic self. How fast this government has degenerated into one that cares not for personal failures. How quickly Lam has gone back on her words on easing social frustrations. Nothing is more infuriating than being talked down to in brazen bureaucratese.

The pro-establishment camp better start evaluating how much of a political liability Lam poses for it. Lam certainly isn’t looking out for them.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA

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How higher education in Hong Kong reinforces social inequalities

CommentInsight & Opinion
2018-01-22

Paul Yip and Chenhong Peng say the sub-degree programmes that tend to attract youth from less-privileged backgrounds cost more to attend yet offer less wage potential than a full degree. It’s time for officials to do more to help those who fail to earn a government-funded university place

The higher education sector in Hong Kong has experienced substantial expansion in the past 30 years. In the early years of the colony, university education was aimed primarily at the Chinese elite who could take up a public service role after graduation. In 1965, just 2.2 per cent of the university-age cohort were enrolled in a degree programme.

It was not until the late 1980s that the government decided to expand the higher education sector. The first wave of reform came about by raising the number of publicly funded degree places.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was established in 1991. And, in 1994, three institutions – Hong Kong Polytechnic, City Polytechnic and Baptist College – were granted university status. As a result, the participation rate of students in publicly funded first-year, first-degree programmes grew from 8.8 per cent in 1989 to 18.1 per cent in 1996.

Then came the second wave of reform in 2001, in which private education providers were encouraged to offer self-financed sub-degree programmes. Including these associate degree programmes, the tertiary education participation rate nearly doubled, from 33 per cent in 2000 to 64 per cent in 2006.

On the whole, this expansion has raised the education level of Hong Kong society. But how has the huge increase in the supply of tertiary graduates affected wages? And how have the returns to tertiary education in Hong Kong – both at the degree and sub-degree levels – changed over the past 20 years?

To find out, we analysed data from the 1996, 2006 and 2016 population census reports, based on male workers aged 24 to 35. In 1996, holders of sub-degree certificates earned 40 per cent more than their secondary-school-educated counterparts. However, the earning difference slumped to 13 per cent in both 2006 and 2016. The decreased returns to a sub-degree tertiary education partially support the argument of credential inflation.

A sub-degree certificate also appears to confer little advantage in the labour market compared to a secondary-school certificate. This echoes the findings of the Education Bureau’s most recent survey of employer opinion on degree and sub-degree holders who graduated in 2013.

According to the survey report, employers gave sub-degree graduates a performance rating of 3.35 out of 5 on average. Among the nine major aspects of performance, they performed poorest in management skills (3.13 out of 5) and proficiency in English (3.15). Moreover, there was significant discrepancy between employers’ expectations and graduates’ performance in analytical and problem-solving skills, work attitude and interpersonal skill.

Degree holders fared marginally better than their sub-degree counterparts in terms of wage returns. In 1996, degree holders earned 70 per cent more than their secondary-school-educated counterparts. The earning difference fell to 42 per cent in 2006 and further dropped to 37 per cent in 2016.

In the employers’ survey, about 75 per cent of employers said they were satisfied with the performance of the degree holders they hired.

The transition from elite higher education to mass higher education in Hong Kong has primarily been achieved through the expansion of self-financed sub-degree programmes. The intake of full-time sub-degree students skyrocketed from 2,600 in 2000/2001 to 19,800 in 2014/2015.

A recent study found that in 2013, 30 per cent of the young people enrolling in a sub-degree programme came from families living below the poverty line. As sub-degree programmes are mainly self-financed and the annual tuition fee can be as high as HK$40,000 to HK$50,000, these young people would probably have to take out a loan to pay for their education. Despite such hefty investment, however, the returns are low.

By contrast, the increase in the publicly funded degree programmes has been rather stable. The student intake increased from 14,200 in 2000/2001 to 17,500 in 2014/2015. Almost half (48.2 per cent) of the young people enrolled came from the wealthiest 10 per cent of families, and only 7 per cent came from families living below the poverty line.

In summary, our analysis suggests that the higher education system, to some extent, exacerbates the level of inequality in Hong Kong. Students from rich families are more likely to enrol in publicly funded degree programmes and enjoy the higher returns they generate while students from poor families are more likely to enrol in a self-financed sub-degree programme, which only generates low returns.

It is the time for government to take a hard look at its higher education policy. It should try to improve the quality of self-financed sub-degree programmes, which would help to raise wage potential in the labour market.

Furthermore, some form of subsidy or compensation is necessary to enable children from disadvantaged families to enjoy greater access to publicly funded degree programmes.

In view of the substantial financial surplus this year, we should provide education and training for those who did not make the cut to a government-funded degree programme. Flexible financial support should be provided to the young people who want to improve their skills and education.

The window of opportunity for skills enhancement closes fast, especially for those aged 15 to 24. If they aren’t helped to improve themselves, they will find it hard to enjoy upward mobility. At the end of the day, Hong Kong will lose its edge if its young people don’t advance themselves.

Paul Yip is a chair professor (population health) and an associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. Chenhong Peng is a PhD student in HKU’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration


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What tiny Luxembourg can teach ageing Hong Kong about labour mobility in the Greater Bay Area

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-12-27

Lucy Kwan and Rex Wong Yat Chun say Luxembourg can be a model for Hong Kong as it tackles a static demographic and labour structure. Hong Kong must take advantage of its closeness to the Pearl River Delta by embracing openness through the flow of ‘frontier workers’

 

Hong Kong is faced with a labour mismatch problem. Industries such as construction and catering complain of chronic worker shortages, while Hong Kong’s youngsters are encouraged to choose a “decent” career in our pillar industries. Our education system, therefore, oversupplies white-collar workers but undersupplies blue-collar workers, who are seen to have less bright socio-economic prospects. As a result, our talent pool is imbalanced and cannot react according to the actual needs of industries.

Many developed cities in the world can draw their talent pool from surrounding areas. However, Hong Kong is special. Currently, there seems to be a lack of concerted and proactive efforts to increase labour mobility in both directions. Hong Kong should form a conurbation with neighbouring cities so that citizens within the economic circle can freely move from their residence to their workplace.

The completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the high-speed railway may realise such a vision. Luxembourg gives us a template.

Despite limited space and population, Luxembourg is one of the world’s most influential financial centres. On aggregate income per capita, Luxembourg ranks among the top economies in the OECD group of wealthy nations. Such economic miracles would not have been achieved if only locals were involved. In fact, nearly half of its population of just 500,000 are foreigners. Moreover, nearly half of the total national employments (more than 170,000 workers) involve “frontier workers”, that is, they reside in neighbouring countries and commute to work, usually daily.

The Luxembourg government has made huge efforts to facilitate cross-border employment. For example, frontier workers can come and go without any restriction if they are European Union or European Free Trade Association nationals. If they are third-country nationals, they must hold a valid work permit issued by certain countries, as well as a valid Luxembourg employment contract bearing a clear statement from their Luxembourg employer that they work for a specific number of days of the month.

Cross-border workers pay taxes in Luxembourg for income generated within the country. To avoid double taxation, Luxembourg has agreements in place with its three neighbours, France, Germany and Belgium. Cross-border workers in Luxembourg pay their part of social security in Luxembourg just like residents, which is lower than in the three adjacent countries.

Luxembourg’s success exemplifies the realisation of a high degree of cross-border mobility. It suggests a bright future for the integration of the labour markets in Hong Kong and adjacent cities such as Shenzhen, Macau and Zhuhai. These four southernmost cities in the “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area” could become the core of the area, and our labour markets would complement each other and be integrated. From Hong Kong’s perspective, industries such as construction and catering could employ workers from our neighbouring cities.

Also, our university graduates would find many more opportunities in the region and it would be easier for them to go where they are both needed and valued.

Hong Kong’s economic and social issues resulting from an ageing population and static growth might be more easily solved.

To facilitate such mobility, we should first accelerate the development of new commercial and residential areas near the border, namely the North Lantau New Town, the Lok Ma Chau Loop area, and the Northeast New Territories.

It would hopefully become a commercial area that would attract companies, especially technology start-ups, to set up their headquarters. Also, the number of border control points and their capacity to handle the rising traffic volume should be expanded.

Secondly, the social security and taxation system for frontier workers within the region should be harmonised.

Workers may live on the mainland but still enjoy the best business environment in the world, including favourable tax rates, simple registration procedures and the established legal protection in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s competitiveness does not come from natural resources, but its people. We need a vibrant and flexible talent pool to sustain our unique competitiveness. Therefore, we should not turn a blind eye to our static and ageing demographic and labour structure. Our proximity to the Pearl River Delta gives us a geographical advantage in supporting our economic growth as well as exerting our influence.

Lucy Kwan is an honorary assistant professor at the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of Hong Kong. Rex Wong Yat Chun is a third-year student majoring in economics and finance at HKU


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If Singapore can groom political talent for good governance, why can’t Hong Kong?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-09-07
Gary Wong Chi-him says that if Carrie Lam wants more effective governance in Hong Kong, she should look to Singapore’s political cultivation process, not its civil service training

During her maiden official trip to Singapore, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor visited the country’s Civil Service College, admitting that it was her second attempt to learn from the vision of the local academy. In the face of new global challenges, professional training for public servants is important, but the Singapore government’s great foresight is not merely the result of a civil service training facility. Rather, its rigorous system in recruitment and development of political talent is key.

Lee Kuan Yew, founding prime minister of Singapore, once stated that the key to the country’s success was “the best and brightest doing the most outstanding jobs”, meaning political talent doing political work.

One must overcome many hurdles to represent the People’s Action Party in Singapore’s general elections. According to Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party, candidates must complete an IQ exam, psychological test with more than 1,000 questions and two face-to-face interviews for clinical assessment. Doctors examine childhood and family life, educational background, experience with national service, sex psychology history, marriage habits, social activities, health, work experience, finances, life philosophy and political motivation. However, past performance in grass-roots work is given higher priority than the psychological test. In the past, Lee Kwan Yew disapproved of some outstanding civil servants due to their lack of ability to work with grass-roots communities and labour unions.

Singapore strongly believes that dealing with low-income groups is the starting point of political training. Political newcomers must begin working in the grass-roots community and climb up step by step. After winning in the general elections and building a solid power base, they may finally enter the government to serve as cabinet ministers or in other high-level leadership positions.

In Singapore, members of Parliament, including the cabinet ministers, meet the residents of their constituencies every week – a programme known as a “meet-the-people session”. I have attended one such session, which began at 7pm and officially ended at midnight. Since there is no specific closing time, the MPs met all the residents who came for help.

Singapore highly values nurturing successors in political leadership. Early in the 1980s, Lee Kwan Yew began talent-hunting across the nation for people in their 30s and early 40s, with academic brilliance and distinguished careers, to join the political arena.

During each general election, the PAP requests a third of its MPs give up their seats for new candidates. Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong believes this turnover rate allows each MP to serve an average of three terms, or about 15 years. In Singapore, if one begins a political career at 37, he or she would only be around 50 on completing 15 years of public service. Singapore emphasises recruiting talent from outside the establishment. Lee Kwan Yew did not want to see a situation where cabinet members hold similar views, leading to “ideological inbreeding”. Currently, the PAP actively recruits talent from think tanks, religious groups, business corporations, community organisations and other fields. Those with political talent are encouraged to have different ideologies, but must agree on core values, handle problems logically and share the goal of solving political problems.

Beyond providing training for civil servants, perhaps Hong Kong more urgently needs a structure for developing political talent. Hong Kong’s chief executive often faces difficulties in forging an effective cabinet, final appointees rarely share a common vision, and the poor organisation process leads to public criticism. Moreover, most appointed officials have no experience in grass-roots politics and elections.

Discussions of Singapore’s political talent system are not intended to encourage Hong Kong to replicate Singapore’s model, but to caution the government to deepen their examination into effective strategies that better discover, nurture and sustain talent in public service. After all, good governance cannot depend on capable public servants – it requires excellent political leaders.

Gary Wong Chi-him is governor of the Path of Democracy