Once again, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is canvassing people for ideas to energise her upcoming policy address. Some greet this appeal as just another exercise in futility. Instead, they want her to ponder this question: do we have a government that takes more than it gives?
The answer, if you judge by the overflowing coffers and the sorry sight of poor old scavengers in our streets, is an accusing “yes”. Hongkongers toil their entire lives and pay their taxes, only to have their government begrudge them a starvation handout in their twilight years. The red tape that greying former taxpayers have to comply with gives the government a deserved black eye.
Governments are supposed to do things that we can’t do individually. They collect our taxes for larger purposes, not to sit on them. But, in Hong Kong, we are awash with idle dollars watched over by idle bureaucrats. While squatting on a bulging surplus, they nickel-and-dime our elderly citizens to death, sometimes literally.
In fairness, the government can take credit for giving us an efficient public transit system, recent MTR scandals notwithstanding. But in other major departments of life, it has been stuck in neutral or worse since the handover. The once equal-opportunity elite school system has been, to all intents and purposes, privatised; free public education is free and public only if it is inferior.
In the name of giving parents more choice, subsidised, privatised schools came into being, raising their fees beyond the reach of low-income families. They are the brainchild of civil servants living in a bubble. Their perks – education allowances, generous pensions, housing allowances, preferential health care – cushion them from the consequences of government policies or economic downturns.
Back to pensions. We have not moved an inch towards a universal pension scheme. In the meantime, retirees driven north in search of cheaper or free lodging with mainland relatives are told they must return to Hong Kong and stay here for a year prior to their application for “fruit money”.
This is a classic Catch-22 situation manufactured by bureaucrats. How can these financially desperate old folk afford to move back to Hong Kong for 12 months just to qualify for this pittance? Why have our bureaucrats become so mindless and heartless? Why play Scrooge when you have money you don’t know what to do with?
As our population ages, more retirees are falling into destitution without a safety net, struggling to get through another day, another month, another year. In Canada, retirees receive pensions and old-age security benefits according to the number of years they were in the tax system. Contributors are thus given a fair share of their contributions.
But don’t hold your breath. Hong Kong’s mandarins are too preoccupied with playing musical chairs; they are transient occupants in a portfolio rotation system that discourages them from making gutsy decisions, because they know they won’t be around long enough to warm their seats.
In the past, the old and the poor managed to eke out a decent living by street hawking. But in its infinite wisdom, the government has cracked down on this traditional feature of life in Hong Kong without offering an alternative means of livelihood. In their folly, urban planners have failed to build wet markets in new communities or have phased out existing ones in old communities.
Street trading, much beloved by tourists and nostalgic residents alike, has been squeezed out by overzealous anti-hawker legislation and the monopoly of supermarkets. The poor remain poor across generations: education and entrepreneurship, two avenues of escape from poverty, are both closed. Officials see urban gentrification as a sign of progress, but to the poor, it is a crippling body blow to their survival.
Inaction is immoral when you have the financial muscle to better people’s lives. Over the past two decades, skyrocketing property prices have taken the fizz out of this city. We are an unhappy city, where even a university president openly complains that he can’t afford a flat.
Why not do what New Zealand has done: ban offshore ownership of residential property outright? Timid, cosmetic measures won’t make a difference. Hong Kong remains a favourite place for newly rich mainlanders to park their money and for speculators to play the market. For an overcrowded city with a severe land shortage, this spells misery for the masses.
This year, there could be a more active form of listening to the people. Let our chief executive and her policy officials venture into the bowels of poverty – into the side streets of Sham Shui Po where hunchbacked old women too poor to retire push scavenger carts to stay alive. Or they could drop in on subdivided flats too crammed for kids to do their homework. Let them feel the sting of poverty, and get uncomfortably close to the people.
Here’s some advice: don’t let your perks and limousines keep you from knowing how the other half lives. Your people may look like you, but they are not like you and certainly don’t live like you. If you don’t see them, how can you ever serve them?
Philip Yeung is a ghostwriter to university presidents and business leaders.