Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Letter to Hong Kong (6th May, 2011)

Are we rich enough? That sounds like a silly question at first brush, but that in fact is a very pertinent question nowadays when one considers the quality of governance of our Government. Are we rich enough? Can we afford to be a more caring society? Or more precisely, a more caring government?

Let's look at the facts: if we add up all our surpluses over the last 14 years since the handover together with our deficits and divide by 14, we get the figure that our Government has consistently under-estimated our fiscal income, on average, by a staggering 30 billion per year! Yes, you heard it right, 30 billion. On average. Each year. This is not to take into account that we have fiscal reserves enough to meet over 20 months of expenditure without a single cent of income. No government will be able to survive 20 months without income. It is not a question of money but a question of politics. So, in a way, it is pointless to keep reserves to cover more than 12 months of expenditure. On top of that, we have a vast foreign exchange fund reserve enough to make any small nation proud.

So what does this translate to? It means either of 2 things: either we are taxing too much; or we are not spending enough. Article 107 of our Basic Law stipulates that we should "strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficits and keep the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product." If we consistently maintain a substantial yearly surplus over a long period of time, we are not achieving fiscal balance. If we are taxing too much, we should be reducing tax. Not dishing out cash payments to everyone including those who do not pay tax. A government is not a bank. It raises tax to maintain a fair and harmonious society, not to pay out public funds to appease a disapproving population.

If the answer is we are not spending enough, the next question is: are there areas we could spend more on? The answer is: yes, there are! There is the pressing issue of the wealth gap, the lack of social mobility, the burden of being one of the most expensive cities to live in driven by high land prices. There is the problem of our health care system slowly falling apart caused by a lack of sufficient resources and an aging population. There is the question of our ever falling education standards over all. The Government responded by saying it is increasing resources across the board by large percentages every year. But all this is relative. If you start off with a relatively low threshold, you will never catch up with the ever increasing wealth gap and a fast aging population.

There is another glaring problem: the Government's mentality towards the poor and those who take a different view on government policies. It doesn't trust them. Whenever it seeks to enforce a policy aimed at alleviating the harsh living conditions of the poor, it is almost paranoid about avoiding overpayment. For example, before an elder is able to seek CSSA payment on an individual basis, he or she must prove to the satisfaction of the social welfare department that his or her children had signed a declaration to the effect that the latter would no longer support him or her. Not to support their parents is a taboo no Chinese would lightly admit breaking. The result is there are many old people left to their own devices, without any help from the Government. Take another example; for the lowly paid to apply a travelling allowance of a mere HK$600, you have to satisfy conditions which are even harsher than claiming CSSA payments. Why?

It is not as if the government is ignorant of these problems. It is not as if those who take a different view is quiet and have not voice their disagreement. At the heart of the problem is a lack of vision and caring by our administration. And an inability to maintain an inclusive mentality. Our Government will rather decide to pay out over 30 billion cash to silence the people of Hong Kong than to pay out 3 billion more every year to increase the resources of our health care system. Immediate political advantage is far more important to this administration than taking a long term view of our community. This Government would rather pander to the public than to care for its future.

Are we rich enough? The answer is: yes, we are. And we are mature enough to deserve a better and more democratic government! Let’s just hope the next chief Executive is a good listener!


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