Policy sickness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong's Central Policy Unit is a semi-submerged government body. Since its inception, it has only twice come up for air: once in 2003 when its former head, Professor Lau Siu-kai, famously predicted that only 30,000 people would turn out for the July 1 protests and more than half a million marched in anger. The other was last year when Lau inexplicably retracted his statement that Hong Kong was near a 'critical point'.

Such notoriety has helped turn the Central Policy Unit into an object of ridicule or worse. Indeed, the Hong Kong government policies are known for their short-term and reactive nature, compared with the long-term strategic planning of Singapore.

It makes you wonder: is the Central Policy Unit up to snuff as a government think tank?

The unit should be the government's eyes and ears in policy matters - eyes towards the horizon for strategic vision and ears to the ground to detect deficiencies or discontent about existing policies and programmes. Ideally, it should do at the policy level what the Audit Commission does at the administrative level.

In his mission statement, the Central Policy Unit's new chief, Shiu Sin-por, includes 'analysing and assessing community concerns and public opinions' among the body's tasks.

One profitable area for assessment is whether policies and programmes inherited from the British colonial government have outlived their usefulness. The think tank should not only suggest new policies but also shape and sharpen existing programmes, many of which remain in place through force of habit.

The first issue of public importance to the Central Policy Unit should be property assessments. For an economy that is overly dependent on the property market, we have an unbelievably primitive system for classifying properties for tax purposes. It has no regard for the owners' circumstances, ensuring taxes can't be used as anything more than a blunt policy tool.

Property assessments may be a mundane subject, but they go to the heart of building a fair society. When Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced a property tax waiver for all property owners in February, was that a wise use of public money?

In British Columbia, Canada, residential properties are divided into three categories: rental properties whose occupants are neither elderly nor disabled; primary residences; and the owner-occupied residences of the elderly, disabled or widowed. They're subject to different rates despite having the same market value.

Why squander money on waivers for speculators with multiple properties? Only owner-occupied residences whose market values are below, say, HK$10 million should be eligible. The government has no business subsidising speculators, non-local owners and the rich.

Another hot-button issue cold-shouldered by Central Policy Unit is our bewildering position on asylum seekers. While Hong Kong is not a signatory to the United Nation's 1951 Refugee Convention, it did sign onto the Convention Against Torture in 1992. Since then, there has been a surge in torture claims, most made after arrests for breaking Hong Kong laws.

Does this notoriously congested city have the capacity to absorb an endless stream of refugees who are fleeing economic problems in Africa and South Asia? We can't even take care of our own cage-dwellers.

Two of the world's most advanced democracies - Australia and the United States, both vocal advocates for human rights - have turned their backs on asylum seekers from the sea.

Australia has taken to forcibly towing refugee ships into the high seas. The US, too, has had its coastguard tow refugees out to sea. Then it had the gall to ask Canada to pluck the unwanted human cargo from rough waters.

We have neither Canada's vast land mass nor its resources to accommodate the estimated 7,000 or more people, mostly unattached males, seeking to enter the city, some of whom threw away their passports before arriving by speedboat from the mainland.

They now roam our streets, jobless and hopeless, stuck here for years, unable to improve their own lot in life.

Bogus claims have spread to foreign domestic workers with expired work visas. According to immigration authorities, as of June 30, about 1,800 torture claimants were foreign domestic workers. In the meantime, they claim food and rental subsidies of about HK$2,000 a month while working illegally. We need to shut the door on bogus claimants and deport them.

The next issue really stinks: indiscriminate government outsourcing, a mindless and wholesale adoption of the Thatcherite privatisation of public services.

After layers of exploitation in an unregulated contracting and subcontracting process, outsourced workers - who include street cleaners and immigration crowd-control assistants - are left to eke out a living on minimum wages, without benefits.

Has the government weighed the social costs of contracting out? Does it know that it has inadvertently created a new subclass of the working poor? This half-baked policy should not go unchallenged. The Central Policy Unit is best equipped to challenge such policies while other departments reflexively practise them.

Under Lau, the Central Policy Unit never shined. Let's hope Shiu gives it a new lustre, by showing us the way towards a fair and strategically smart society. The public will give the new team time to prove its mettle. But please don't make us wait too long.

Philip Yeung is a senior communication manager at a Hong Kong university. Philipkcyeung2@yahoo.com