Leung identifies, but must now implement

Updated: 2013-01-17 06:02

By Richard Harris (HK Edition)

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It was high noon. The last drink at the Last Chance saloon. The eleventh hour. By his own admission, the stakes were high for Chief Executive CY Leung when he said his Policy Address would be Hong Kong's blueprint for the next five years. Blueprint it was, but while the outlines were clear, the details were obscure.

The Policy Address was an excellent essay of the current challenges facing Hong Kong. They are pretty well "first-world problems": expensive housing, a poor underclass and a worrisome atmospheric environment. Indeed the Chief Executive seemed to be personally touched by the plight of a youngster in his own city who sleeps in a box suspended from a ceiling. Such honesty about problems facing a society is rarely seen in a set-piece address in any legislature.

It can't escape even a casual observer that many of these problems are long term and could have been dealt with a decade or two ago. There have been too many reviews, studies and identifications over the years. Several studies were recommended in this Policy Address, which begs the question as to why our highly paid, senior civil servants did not commission them before the Chief Executive's much-delayed speech? It is to the Chief Executive's credit that they are now being identified so hotly, but identification is not enough. Action is needed!

The issue of the staggering cost of housing took nearly half of CY's speech time. He has made available a big chunk of land together with some re-zoning of land use, which will help. But we need big, bold measures to cut demand, as the population of Hong Kong moves rapidly from 8 million to 10 million. The government will never do too much damage to our property market with a few temporary big measures.

It seems extraordinary in our modern city that many elderly people, last generation's messengers, cleaners, drivers, live in poverty. As CY moved into social security, there was again a good deal of analysis but few hard policies. Handouts to pensioners are welcome, but in reality the money is a very small amount to live in expensive Hong Kong. Will we still be able to afford those entitlement handouts in 30 years' time when 2.5 million of us are over 65 years old? We need root and branch reform of social security today, such as a properly designed funded pension scheme, not entitlements.

Being tough on environmental pollution is the easiest challenge for CY and the cheapest, lowest-risk way to become popular in the street, which in turn will weaken his political opponents. Again the problem was identified but the measures are not bold enough. He is giving away HK$10 billion to transport operators to make their engines more efficient when in most other countries legislation would do the same for free. It's lucky that we have money in the bank. But why not spend the money reducing pollution by Hong Kong-owned companies in Guangdong where the worst still originates.

At the heart of our problems is a deeply polarized economy; our services are either first class or economy. There is nothing in between massively expensive private housing and public sector housing; US-expense level health provision or free overcrowded hospitals; wealthy private education or free rote-learning education.

Government could think of providing services for those who can afford to pay - we are a rich city - but cannot afford the highest prices in the world. It could create a new model of subsidized but high fee paying business class housing, health and education to allow our globalized, educated population to aspire to something better at a price point they can afford.

CY has one of the most intensely political jobs in the world. He has few friends in running what is likely to become the third internationalized city of the world after London and New York. He is not a leader with unlimited power, but in the civil service he does have huge resources. Hong Kong needs to give him a chance to succeed, but to do that will mean that at times he will have to face up to the Liaison Office, the property barons, the New Territory interests, Long Hair, the gay and anti-gay activists and the minibus drivers! That is the art of politics; of managing everyone's agenda. His agenda must be to do the very best for the people of Hong Kong - and implement his plans boldly.

The author is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management.

(HK Edition 01/17/2013 page3)