PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 12:00am

Albert Cheng King-hon always writes stimulating articles and his concern for the less privileged in our society is patently obvious from his articles and radio programmes.

His column on January 4 headlined 'Elderly should not have to fend for themselves', highlights a dilemma which bureaucracies are not designed to handle well.

An elderly lady apparently values the companionship of a gambler son who, in turn, values her financial contributions to his 'vice'. He seems to take advantage of her need and Mr Cheng considers that their 'welfare benefits' should be taken away, that officials should stop the elderly lady's means of earning extra money and she should be removed to a 'caring and safe place' for her own good. This would presumably 'protect' her from the one person for whom she has shown any affection.

This is the dilemma for bureaucrats and possibly for the general public. Is begging a legitimate form of income generation? The welfare system allows for a small amount of extra income (from respectable sources?) to encourage some independence of welfare handouts. Mr Cheng inadvertently perhaps provides ammunition for the concept of 'abuse of the welfare system' used by former British premier Margaret Thatcher, before our local bureaucrats, to argue for less welfare. There are worldwide trends to allow old people to continue working, but neither the nature of work nor the level of earning for them have been defined.

However, one would presume that most 'developed' countries could not want to see a lady of 80 begging on the streets. If her relatives were all in Canada (not a gambling son in Hong Kong) and this lady insisted that she wished to be independent and to earn money by begging what would be Mr Cheng's suggestion? Police 'dragging' a reluctant elderly person off the streets? If begging is generally allowed, what would be the justification for depriving her of her human and civil rights? Many years ago the debate was about whether the authorities should 'clean up' the streets and remove the unsightly phenomena of street sleepers and beggars. The conclusion seems to have been that this would be a deprivation of some individual rights in the interests of 'tourism', and the answer has been to 'offer help' to the individuals who are relatively free to accept or reject.

The problem for the authorities in this case seems to be:

Should they force someone to accept the comfort of a 'home'?

Should someone on welfare be allowed to use their welfare income for investment purposes (in this case gambling)?

When is someone abused and, if they are adults and do not consider it abuse, should the authorities decide for them? and

How to balance concern for civil and human rights with the public's abhorrence of neglect (only when it is so visible on the streets) of vulnerable people.

Is the answer, on the reading of this article, to deprive both the elderly woman and her son of their welfare payments, to forcibly keep the woman in a retirement home (fortunately not possible under current legislation) and break up the only relationship (with her son) that has meaning for her? The possibility, from my experience, if this is done in this simple manner is a reduction in the woman's life expectancy, possibly a more 'comfortable' but empty, shorter, existence for her. There is certainly no evidence that the simple approach suggested would lead to a reformed gambling filial son.

We won't stay with her, but our consciences may feel lighter not seeing her begging on the streets in 6.8 degrees Celsius weather. However, I would not like to see Mr Cheng's welcome exposure of a problem, for an increasing number of families on low incomes and the plight of many elderly people, lead to an 'out of sight, out of mind' solution and to further attacks on welfare when more Hong Kong people are suffering job losses and cuts in income and services.


Wan Chai