PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2002, 12:00am

AN ITEM IN SINGAPORE'S Straits Times on Wednesday caught my eye. The headline read: 'HK needs to shift from 'make a fast buck' philosophy'.

The story began: 'Hongkongers must shift their mindset from opportunism, quick profits and property development, to commitment to innovation and technology so as to compete in the knowledge-based economy, said a report.'

Now this, it turns out, was not a case of Singaporeans trying to run down Hong Kong. It was simply a Singapore newspaper reporting objectively on a study done by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which compiled the views of more than 200 businessmen, academics and government officials expressed in a series of forums organised by the university this year.

I will not bore you with the rest of the article, but I was surprised that I had not read the report in the Hong Kong press. Then it occurred to me: of course, it cannot be news in Hong Kong that people are out to make a fast buck. In fact, it often appears that the raison d'etre of Hong Kong is to make a fast buck, or at least to find any excuse for making money.

I remember, many years ago, when I was young and innocent, being struck by the fact that prices were constantly going up. And the reasons given were often contradictory.

I could be mistaken, but I seem to remember on one occasion a proposal that tunnel tolls should go up because too many cars were using the tunnel. The increase was to discourage the use of the tunnel.

Solution was always the same

Then, some time later, there was another proposal to raise tolls. This time, it was because too few cars were using the tunnel, and so the loss in revenue had to be made up. I remembered thinking that, whatever the problem, the solution was always the same: raise prices.

(I had a similar experience once with a podiatrist who said there were two possible causes of my foot problem; he was not sure what it was but that was not important because, whatever the problem, the cure was the same: arch supports.)

Anyhow, Singapore and Hong Kong are constantly compared and contrasted. Some say the two cities are very similar, pointing out that both are predominantly Chinese societies that used to be British colonies. Others say that they are totally different, pointing to the freedoms and pollution of Hong Kong, while Singapore is clean and green and, well, much more disciplined.

Actually, recent evidence has surfaced suggesting that both schools of thought are correct. Singapore and Hong Kong are both similar and different.

Let me cite the evidence. Hong Kong is in the midst of an economic downturn, with a huge budget deficit and high unemployment. Singapore, too, is in the midst of a recession and is trying to create jobs for its people.

The solution? Simple: maids. Maids? Yes, or, as they are called, foreign domestic helpers. The Liberal Party suggests there should be a $500 levy on each maid in Hong Kong.

Help reduce the deficit

That would raise $1.2 billion a year and help reduce the budget deficit. Bear in mind that maids' salaries were recently cut by the government. Most maids make $3,670 a month, the minimum wage. A $500 tax would be about 13.6 per cent of their salary.

Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun points out that the Philippine peso has fallen sharply in the last five years and so, 'a $500 tax would not have much negative effect on their families'.

Singapore, too, is eyeing foreign maids. But its approach is very different. The Singapore government wants to increase taxes, not on the maids, but on their employers.

That way, not only will the government gain revenue but, the reasoning goes, some Singaporeans will be discouraged from hiring foreign domestic helpers and maybe, just maybe, more locals will get work.

Singapore has been taxing maids' employers all along, and the levy has been increasing. It is now S$345 (HKS1,520) per month.

The Singapore Manpower Ministry explains the proposal this way: 'We recognise that maids help families meet their domestic needs. But a heavy dependence on maids will undermine our efforts to create jobs for Singaporeans.'

There you have it. In the hands of foreign domestic helpers lies the solution to both Hong Kong and Singapore's economic woes.

Now, if only they would agree to work for nothing.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator