Solution absence shows Tung is getting it right

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 October, 1998, 12:00am

This newspaper's own front page headline on Wednesday's policy speech by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa exemplifies a misperception of what such a speech can do. 'Tung fails to offer solutions,' it read.

But that's just the point. The last thing we need is a government handing down yet more solutions, only to backtrack from them in a matter of months when they start to go awry again.

The underlying fallacy of this solution is its presumption that public policy problems are like problems in mathematics. Each has a definite and single solution and what is required is to follow the requisite steps of logic to arrive at that solution, QED.

It is somehow also presumed that anyone who steps into a senior government position is a mathematician who can work out these solutions or at least has this expertise available in the civil service.

But think of it rather in terms of a gardener growing a potted plant. There are many things he can and should do. They include providing good soil, fertiliser, clean water and sunlight. If all goes well the seed will turn into the potted plant he wants.

There is, however, one thing he cannot do. He cannot reach down into the soil, grasp the seed between two fingers and pull his plant out of it.

Government is like gardening. It does not directly create a strong and healthy economy. It only creates the conditions for that economy to grow into a strong and healthy one on its own.

The difficulty we have had for many years, long before the handover, is a government notion that it had mastered instant plant technology and needed only the seed and its own fingers. While preaching non-interventionism it became highly interventionist.

We see it now in two key areas of the economy - housing policy which has largely eliminated free market forces from housing and transport policy which allows no market to operate at all. There are signs of it elsewhere too, wages for maids being a classic example.

And it has not worked well. Mr Tung is right in attributing much of Hong Kong's present troubles to outside influences but high and volatile property prices are the result of the Government's own property policies.

Equally, the horrendous expenses it is now contemplating to expand the transport network are the result of directing property development to outlying areas while leaving vast swathes of decrepit buildings in the inner city because lease conversion premiums rob the owners of any incentive to redevelop.

Property is the one key issue in Hong Kong Government policy. Mr Tung was undoubtedly right in focusing his administration on it. But then he became the ambitious gardener who thought he could go from seed to plant in a single two-fingered move by building 85,000 units a year.

He is beginning to realise that it is not working and he is backtracking. But whereas it could be seen as evidence of character strength in the US when President Bill Clinton looked directly into a television camera and confessed to a Monica, overt backtracking in our society is still regarded as a sign of character weakness.

Mr Tung backtracked the Hong Kong way. He did not reiterate the 85,000 unit a year pledge or the 70 per cent home-ownership goal. These are significant omissions from a policy speech.

He told the Housing Secretary to talk to the community about whether the Government should offer home-ownership loans rather than directly putting up 'bricks and mortar' in Home Ownership Scheme flats. This is the way the rest of the world is going, a route that many critics of Hong Kong's housing policy have advocated.

It may not seem much but one is meant to read between the lines a little when announcements are made in Hong Kong of changes in previously much heralded policy initiatives.

We are beginning to get a change of direction in this critical matter of housing. The Government has begun to recognise that it does not have the ready made answers and that it needs to listen too.

Our headline should have read: 'Tung stops offering solutions. Hurrah!'