Hong Kong still playing catch-up in talent quest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong is preparing to launch a new scheme intended to attract quality migrants, which is a sensible step. But it is also time to take a critical look at how much appeal our city has, compared with others competing in the global battle for talent. This is important, as Hong Kong is losing much of its homegrown talent to places overseas.

Faced with a choice between going to Canada, Australia, Singapore and other countries with an appetite for skilled migrants, what kinds of applicants will be drawn to Hong Kong? It is difficult to offer a definitive answer. Although there is no lack of anecdotes about why foreigners choose to come here, there has been no serious study on the subject.

Until now, most expatriates have come with confirmed job offers. They are believed to be driven partly by a sense of adventure, and many are sent here by their companies. When they first arrived, most had expected to be here for the short haul, but many ended up staying for good because they came to love Hong Kong. But how does our city look to prospective migrants who want to relocate permanently abroad? The answer is not so positive. Living conditions, with our cramped housing, are far from ideal. Our country parks are beautiful, but space is at a premium in built-up areas. Worsening air pollution is causing health problems and shrouding our scenic sights in smog.

Above all, while Hong Kong offers good career prospects for finance-related professionals, opportunities for those specialising in other disciplines, such as the natural sciences, are more limited. In fact, that is also discouraging some locally-born people from returning after completing higher studies overseas.

That is not to say the government should try to use public money to start new industries for the sake of diversification. Our policy of letting market forces decide what is best for Hong Kong has largely worked. Our industrial structure - and demand for talent - has evolved as our competitive situation changed over the years. But it does mean we should nurture an environment in which our talent, both locally-born and foreign-bred, would want to put down roots. Pledges by the government to do more to clean up the air and improve the work-life balance by promoting a five-day week are steps in the right direction.

A more difficult problem that awaits attention is children's education. Already, international schools are inundated with more applicants than they can admit, because many local students dissatisfied with local schools also choose to go there. This has created problems for multinational companies wanting to deploy their overseas staff here. Initially, the Quality Migrant Scheme will have an annual quota of only 1,000. But if some of the immigrants' children have to go to international schools, then the shortage of places will worsen. For some, the shortage is likely to deter them from coming in the first place.

The long-term solution should lie in overhauling local schools to enhance their capability of admitting children from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Our talents, from home and abroad, are more likely to stay and contribute to Hong Kong's future, if they are confident that their children can get a good education here. Instead of pursuing policies that would prolong the distinction between local and international schools, we should encourage the former to go international and the latter to go local. If students from both types of schools could become bilingual in English and Chinese, and act as the middlemen between Hong Kong, the mainland and the outside world, then the competitiveness of our labour force would be greatly enhanced.

The proposed migrant scheme appears to appeal more to ethnic Chinese, particularly those from the mainland. Even so, we would be competing with Singapore, which has a better quality of life and arguably better schools. In the global competition for talent, Hong Kong still has a lot of catching up to do.