Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Asia’s world city? Hong Kong is mediocre at best, if we’re honest

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-21
Peter Kammerer says stagnant Hong Kong, with its low liveability rankings, need only look at Melbourne to see what a real globalised city offers residents by way of living
standards and civil liberties

Hong Kong’s government has been throwing around that tired old “Asia’s world city” tag since 2001. Anyone who gets to experience what’s on offer elsewhere knows that’s not true; it may arguably have been once, but no longer. We’ve fallen so far behind on representing global standards and values that such a claim is a joke. It’s time to rebrand, with an eye on honesty.

This was brought starkly home during a recent trip to Melbourne. I worked there in the mid-1980s and found it a pleasant enough city, but not sufficiently special to make me stay longer than two years. I moved to Hong Kong and was captivated. But the longer you stay somewhere, the more comfortable and less demanding you get; and I realise I’ve become far too complacent.

Melbourne has moved ahead by leaps and bounds since I lived there, which makes me realise how little Hong Kong has changed.

There’s culture, art and sophistication in downtown Melbourne; pedestrian precincts, roadside dining, street art and performance, free inner-city trams and large areas set aside for leisure pursuits – all with pristine air to breathe. This is a place that thinks about people and puts them first.

I’m not the only one impressed. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for the past seven years, put Melbourne at the top of its annual global liveability ranking of 140 cities (Hong Kong placed 45th in the latest, and Singapore 35th). Lifestyle magazine Monocle’s top 25 liveable cities list for 2017 has Melbourne at number five, with Tokyo at the top, Hong Kong 15th and Singapore 21st. US consulting firm Mercer’s yearly quality of living study for expatriates ranked Melbourne at 16th, with Vienna at the top and Singapore 25th. Hong Kong only managed 71st.

These studies take into account factors like rights and freedoms, social and political stability, infrastructure, food prices, rent, public transport, education and air quality. Australian, Canadian and Western European cities usually take the top spots. In Asia, Japanese cities fare best, with Hong Kong and Singapore close behind.

Given that the research is by European and North American firms, their results understandably reflect liberal Western viewpoints.

In a world of globalised business, employment and education, it’s right to expect certain standards. Rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, and a reasonable quality of living are as essential as infrastructure, to attract major firms and talented employees. A city that doesn’t offer such fundamentals is bound to lose out. Cities are expected to follow trends and make improvements.

Melbourne has done that well and it’s paying off, with a booming economy and population growth in line to make it Australia’s biggest city by 2031. Hong Kong hasn’t had such dynamism. Worse, for all the gloating of the government’s Brand Hong Kong website about the city being “anchored on the bedrock of the rule of law”, with a “fair and stable society that cherishes freedom of expression”, there are those among us who increasingly have their doubts.

Recent comments by Beijing officials, court rulings and a continued lack of genuine democracy are just the start. High poverty levels, unfair treatment of ethnic minorities and the elderly, congested traffic and bad air quality say much; there’s been little, if any, change since we started contending to be a world city.

Those denied gay marriage, bike riders told they can’t have cycle lanes in urban areas, those lamenting the lack of outdoor eateries and shopping zones free of vehicles and diesel-choked streets, make plain we’re not what we claim to be.

So let’s rebrand. The obvious choice is Asia’s Mediocre City.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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Carrie Lam’s focus on affordable housing in Hong Kong will finally help the squeezed ‘sandwich’ class

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-09-22
Ken Chu welcomes the chief executive’s initiatives on housing, especially for young families, as they will benefit the often-neglected ‘sandwich class’ and reinstate their faith in the city’s future

It was during her election campaign that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor first floated the idea of launching affordable homes for families struggling to buy flats at market rates.

Recently, she shared the basic concepts of her Starter Homes Scheme, which aims to enable these families to purchase a flat at prices lower than market rates.

The scheme will be targeted at permanent residents of Hong Kong. To qualify, they must be first-time homebuyers. According to Lam, the primary targets are young families who would be able to purchase a private flat at an affordable price.

In addition, according to reports, restrictions will be ­imposed on these homeowners if they want to resell the subsidised units, to prevent them from making huge profits at the expense of others in society.

At a housing forum earlier this month, Lam further described the targeted young families as those who are not only ineligible to apply for public rental housing or the purchase of Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) flats, but who are also unable to afford private housing despite their “decent” income. Let’s call this group the “sandwich class”, if you will.

Lam has also said the government is likely to consider a public-private partnership format to launch the scheme. Reports suggest the government will consider allowing private property developers to develop their land ­reserves at a lower land premium, in exchange for setting set aside a number of flats for the Starter Homes Scheme.

Some, however, argue that the plan is unfair to other classes in society, because those who will benefit already hold well-paid jobs and are within the top 10 to 15 per cent of income groups in the city.

I disagree. I trust that the chief executive has not singled out this group to the ­exclusion of others in society. For example, Lam has already pledged to increase the number of units for the so-called “green form subsidised home ownership pilot scheme” – to encourage public housing tenants to buy subsidised flats at a discount to the market price and so free up public rental housing units for those in need.

The government also recently announced plans to work with NGOs to launch legalised subdivided flats – under the so-called “social housing pilot scheme” – for those currently on the public housing waiting list.

Further, Lam has not lost sight of the acute shortage of land, which has sent private home prices skyrocketing beyond the reach of ordinary residents, while slowing down the building of more public housing flats for low-income families.

Given this scenario, Lam has formed a task force for exploring all options to increase land supply and launch a territory-wide debate, in an attempt to reach a consensus on the best approach to tackle the problem.

Besides, she has repeatedly emphasised that land earmarked for public housing will not be used for the starter home plan. Indeed, a public-private partnership approach implies the scheme will not compete for public land, as only private land will be enlisted.

It must be noted that the well-being of the so-called “sandwich” or middle class in Hong Kong has been neglected for too long. They deserve help, as much as the grass roots do.

History shows that the existence of a strong and law-abiding middle class is a stabilising force in society. It is the driving force behind its growth and prosperity. Sadly, our “sandwich” class has ­suffered the effects of economic downturns over the years, without enjoying much in the way of social ­welfare or benefits.

Members of our middle class, despite holding a decent job, find it almost impossible to afford a flat these days in Hong Kong’s exorbitantly expensive housing market. A survey by the international real estate consulting firm Demographia early this year revealed that the average price of a private home in Hong Kong was 18 times the median annual household income.

In other words, only if someone were to stop all spending on food, drinks and holidays for 18 straight years could they hope to buy a private home in costly Hong Kong.

At the very least, offering a helping hand to our young families as they chase their home dreams is one way to ease their frustration, as well as “reignite” their hopes for the future of the city.

Certainly, the government must consider the feasibility of every public policy initiative as, very often, failure to take heed of the technical details will ultimately diminish the effectiveness of any such initiative.

There are a number of technical matters to tackle in the case of starter homes, including at which price they will be sold, what the upper income ceiling will be for applicants, whether there will be a minimum holding period, and what sort of restrictions will be imposed to prevent people from profiting at the ­expense of taxpayers when they sell these homes.

However, I am confident that Lam’s administration has the capability and wisdom to roll out an ­effective starter home scheme for our young middle class who will ­become the pillars of society in the future.

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