Balance budget cuts with public safety
The rank and file of Hong Kong's police force has for several years feared that the ongoing budget cuts may soon bring reductions in the number of frontline officers - therefore affecting the morale of the force and the public's safety.
On their own, these concerns require attention. However, when none other than the chief of police adds his voice to the chorus, it is time to take the matter even more seriously.
Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Police Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai said that from the next financial year onwards it would be difficult for the police force to make the cost cuts expected of it without the possibility of reducing frontline staffing.
Up to now, the impact on foot patrols has been minimal because budget cuts have been focused on managerial and administrative posts, as well as outsourcing non-essential services.
Over the past four years, more than $1 billion has been squeezed out of what is now an $11.5 billion budget through these means - and by merging smaller police stations.
More recently, outdated and unnecessary benefits for senior officers have also been targeted.
Yet there clearly are limits to how much back-office budgets can be cut without compromising the police work. Sooner or later, the question of a reduction in the visible police presence on our streets had to come up. Now that it has, Mr Lee is correct in saying that whether or not this is allowed to happen is a political decision.
Residents and visitors alike have long depended on Hong Kong's police force being among the most professional and corruption-free anywhere in the world.
Their constant and well-disciplined presence among the public is credited for a consistently low crime rate, while cuts imposed across all civil service departments have not undermined this so far.
Even recruitment of junior police officers, although at a reduced level, has been allowed to continue.
The government's budget deficit does have to be brought under control and civil service reforms must continue. Seven years after the handover, many colonial-era perks remain in place - including the first-class sea passage to England for retiring senior officers, a benefit that is now the subject of much controversy.
Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen's projections call for 11 per cent spending cuts from all government departments over the next five years.
Arguably, targets for reducing bureaucracy and overall spending should stay in place. Closing the budget gap by Mr Tang's 2009 target date requires nothing less. But the drive towards efficiency and fiscal balance cannot be allowed to undermine essential and important services, one of which is law and order. Nor is a one-size-fits-all prescription for budget cuts appropriate.
Judging from some recent budget-cut wrangles, the city's policy-makers have already woken up to the need to show flexibility in areas that are public priorities.
In the case of education, the government compromised on the timetable for spending reductions. In the end, after this financial year's onerous 10 per cent, there will be no cuts in the next two financial years and the following year's cut will be capped at 5 per cent.
Of course, Mr Lee's assertions and the numbers behind them will have to be examined closely. But because salaries for the 27,000-strong police force account for such a large portion of the department's spending, the matter of spending reductions affecting street-level policing had to be addressed at some point.
If the education budget-reduction debate is anything to go by, the solution to the cost-cutting exercise for the police force will require sensitivity and negotiation. Force morale has to be maintained, along with Hong Kong's reputation as one of the world's safest cities.