New school of thought
The more one looks at the perks enjoyed by our civil servants, the more out of place they appear. Now that Hong Kong is no longer a colony, why should our government continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars educating its employees' children in selected countries that colonial administrators used to come from before 1997?
And why should civil servants be eligible for housing and other allowances when they already receive salaries that are above-market rates?
But a contract is a contract. Although it is tempting to pass a law to strike out clauses stipulating those archaic allowances in civil servants' employment contracts, it would be wrong. Doing so would be blatantly against the Basic Law, which provides that the pay and conditions of our public servants should be no worse than before 1997.
The escalating costs of the allowances, however, must be reined in. The government spent $619.1 million subsidising the costs of overseas education for 5,983 children of 5,127 civil servants, or $10,477 per child, in the 2004-2005 financial year. The associated student passage allowance and travelling expenses in the place of study amounted to $133 million and $28.5 million respectively.
In the same year, another 16,733 civil servants claimed $284 million in local education allowance for their 20,304 children, or $13,987 per student.
The government has proposed that civil servants who are already enjoying perks will have their allowances frozen at current levels, while new claimants will have theirs fixed at 1997 levels, which will not be allowed to rise.
These measures will cap the entitlement of every civil servant, but the total bill is still expected to rise because overseas and local education allowances were awarded to civil servants who joined the government before 1996 and 2000 respectively.
The majority of civil servants - 121,843 and 151,924 for overseas and local allowances respectively - are therefore eligible to claim these benefits when their children reach school age over the next 20 to 30 years.
One could only hope that fewer civil servants would want to claim these allowances as efforts to improve local schools bear fruit. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
Many families feel alienated by the decision in 1998 to limit the provision of English-medium education to only about 100 schools. While the policy is based on educational considerations, many parents are prompted to send their children overseas if they are allocated to Chinese-medium schools.
There is also a widespread perception that children who do not do well in local schools could benefit from the more relaxed learning atmosphere - and lower academic standards - of foreign schools.
Even for the top students, exposing them to an authentic English-language environment overseas is also considered a worthwhile venture.
The argument has sometimes been made that the overseas education allowance has benefited Hong Kong by enabling many children to receive a high-quality education abroad. The argument is sound, but it begs the question as to why such a perk should only be enjoyed by civil servants.
At the end of the day, most parents would rather their children stay with them during their formative years. Hopefully, as our education reforms bear fruit, more civil servants will not claim the overseas education allowances because their children are so happy at local schools that they do not want to leave.
C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy