Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Our government is back-flipping, spinning and U-turning over this year’s budget. Financial Secretary, the hapless Paul Chan Mo-po, spent weeks steadfast refuting calls for cash handouts. Stridently, he claimed this was against fiscal policy. Then today the direction changed - a complete 180. He is giving gifts of HK$4000- through the Community Care Scheme. Although to achieve that, he needs to spend over HK$10 million on staff and systems. The question is why did he bother collecting the money in the first place?
Unlike other jurisdictions, Hong Kong as an embarrassment of riches. For the last 14 years revenue has exceeded expenditure by a significant margin. This year's budget brought a surplus of HK$138 billion. That's US$17.7 billion or in laymen’s terms ‘a load of money’. Meaning that we have over one trillion Hong Kong dollars in our fiscal reserves. By some estimates, the government has enough cash to operate for five years. That’s an enviable position.
And all this despite the fact that public money gets wasted on infrastructure projects of doubtful value. Things that come to mind are the West Kowloon Arts Hub, a cruise terminal that rarely has cruise ships and a Science Park that has little science. Of course, one should not forget the new government headquarters on the waterfront. A vanity project that commands the Hong Kong shoreline.
Citizens must be dancing in the streets that Hong Kong is doing so well. Not so. The simple fact is only a few are benefiting from these massive surpluses. A fair part of our society continues to struggle without help. Old folks forced to collect rubbish to make a few bucks are a common sight. Families are living in shoe-box sized apartments or sub-divided flats that Dickens would recognise. Some of which may or may not have belonged to our Financial Secretary. He’s given contradictory answers to questions on the matter.
Besides, our public hospitals are struggling with the demands of the flu season. Chronic under-investment, coupled with a lack of strategic planning, means an eight-hour wait to see a doctor. You shouldn’t be surprised. Our government’s attitude is callous. It's exemplified by provisions to have old folks decamped to cheaper cities on the Mainland. The people who worked hard to build Hong Kong are now expendable and encouraged to move on. How ethical is that?
I digress. The taxpayer is being asked year after year to make contributions to government coffers. The money then sits idle in low yield investments. Some cash filters out to the private sector as our officials play at deal-maker. Having said that, the bureaucrats aren’t that smart. The Disney deal is the prime example. Despite vast amounts of public money, associated infrastructure funded by us and a steady flow of visitors, Disney is failing. It has lost over HK$900 million in the past eight years. Shamelessly, the Walt Disney Company is charging an annual franchise fee of HK$59 million. Reluctant to admit their error, officials want to throw more money down the rat hole.
This year the favoured project is the Science Park. HK$40 billion gets pushed that way. Having oversight of this treasure chest is Fanny Law, a former career civil servant. She resigned a previous post accused of interfering with academic freedom. Law is 65 years old and not known for her originality. A review of her career reveals a series of gaffes and blunders. Hardly the profile of a person you’d wish to see leading a massive IT initiative. Law has had a protected existence like her boss Chief Executive Carrie Lam. A lady who didn’t know how to use an Octopus Card or where to buy toilet paper.
Elsewhere in the world, leaders understand that IT projects need young risk-taking types. People who innovate with passion, attuned to the evolving world of IT. Not an old lady, entering her dotage. Thus, we can expect sub-optimal results. It’s likely the project will wallow in mediocrity as more tax money disappears.
Returning to the government's U-turn. To distribute the money, they've come up with a scheme that's going to take months to install. And at the end, the benefits are marginal at best. I must give the government credit for listening to public sentiment. Ironically, they then give up that credit for nonsensical proposals, allied to a convoluted process.
It’s difficult to take seriously a financial secretary who has more money than he knows what to do with and yet can’t get the simple stuff right. Universal pensions for the elderly are long overdue. Healthcare services for an ageing population and IT initiatives in the hands of the young. That’s whats needed. Not tickets for Ocean Park, cash for video gamers (HK$100 million for e-sports) or billions for a science park. My request is simple. Either spend my money on those who deserve it, like the old folks, or give me back my money.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.