Ho Lok-sang discusses what the CE’s maiden Policy Address should address, including key livelihood issues, housing, healthcare and infrastructure safety
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is to present her maiden Policy Address on Oct 11. Until now the signs are looking good, as Hong Kong continues to heal after the illegal “Occupy Central” movement. Although there are sporadic protests and even some misguided calls for Hong Kong’s independence among young people, Hong Kong society is, by and large, peaceful. With Hong Kong on an even keel, the government will be in a better position to launch new initiatives and address the many pressing problems confronting us.
For me, the most pressing issues are mostly livelihood problems. Long working hours and low pay; inadequate healthcare; too little support for the most vulnerable groups particularly the handicapped and the elderly poor; unsafe and poorly ventilated accommodation that nevertheless cost a lot to rent; unsafe and congested roads which cost Hong Kong people their lives and time.
I am less concerned about the economy, which is evidently developing well because of improving business confidence worldwide. But I nevertheless hope that the government will work harder to enhance Hong Kong’s appeal as a leading Asian capital to attract companies to set up their regional headquarters.
Last week, I commented on the need to set legal maximum hours, especially for occupations for which long working hours could pose a threat to public safety. I believe this issue is too pressing and the problems from long working hours are so obvious there is no need for a study that could delay the proposed legislation for months or even years. The time to act is now.
For healthcare, I would argue that the priority is not so much to introduce a regulated voluntary health insurance program to enhance the reliability of the publicly funded healthcare system. In recent years, the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” has been widening: In education the proliferation of direct subsidy schools means that in relative terms, those who cannot afford to pay the higher fees charged by direct subsidy schools have to settle for per capita resources that could be less than one-third of those enjoyed by students enrolled in direct subsidy schools. In regards to healthcare, the government has encouraged the expansion of private hospitals and private insurance with the vain wish of siphoning patients from public hospitals to reduce pressures on the latter. The result, unfortunately, has been perverse, with our public hospitals losing medical staff especially senior staff to private hospitals. Because private hospitals tend to leave patients with complications to the public hospitals, the pressures on public hospitals have been rising rather than falling.
Today, high housing prices seem to be the most eye-catching issue that is ubiquitous in Hong Kong’s media: Newspapers, online platforms, radio, TV. Yet in fact high housing prices are not the concern of those living in poor and even dangerous conditions. For those who cannot afford to buy a home even if prices decline by one-third, having a healthy and safe home is the highest priority. The problem of illegal subdivisions and conversions of flats including industrial ones needs to be addressed. But the more pressing problem is whether the accommodation is reasonably safe to live in. No one wants a repeat of the Ma Tau Wai Road incident in January 2010, which saw a residential building collapse killing four people. Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan was criticized for proposing to introduce legal subdivided flats to meet Hong Kong’s housing needs. It is easy for critics to criticize, but if this can help families move to safer housing we should try.
Hong Kong has invested a lot in improving its infrastructure in recent years. Yet infrastructure safety is still rated poorly, to the extent that it had dragged down Hong Kong’s global ranking as a safe city. Apart from reducing long working hours for our drivers, which I have mentioned above, I do hope that the clarity and the positions of our road direction signs be improved. To an extent this problem can be alleviated by the increased use of navigation using the GPS system, but the many “black spots” where accidents often occur suggest that road signs as well as road design have something to do with the prevalence of accidents in those spots. Another sore point is the frequency of accidents involving vehicles slamming into road repair vehicles or trucks that are found on Hong Kong’s highways.
Finally, we need to enhance the competitiveness of the Hong Kong economy. Carrie Lam has indicated she would lower the profit tax rate for our small and medium enterprises. That is fine, but our headline profit tax rate of 16.5 percent is quickly losing its attractiveness, as other economies are reducing theirs. We have also been too complacent being rated as the world’s freest economy and among the world’s top three financial centers. But our outdated mentality, in such things as weighted voting rights, is hurting our ability to attract IPOs from the new economy. I am satisfied that Hong Kong is moving ahead in entrepreneurship with a mushrooming of startups in the new economy. But with our industrial estates and science park being used to full capacity, greater efforts to increase land supply is needed.
The author is dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education.