Age of unreason
The selfishness of the upper echelons of the civil service, from which come the chief executive, the financial secretary and other apparatchiks, never ceases to amaze. This week, the South China Morning Post reported the growing concern in government circles about the ageing population and the strain it would place on the economy. Commissioner for Census and Statistics Fung Hing-wang noted that the flood of 1950s and 1960s migrants will soon be retiring. Financial chief John Tsang Chun-wah, in his budget, warned of the fiscal burden of an ageing population. All true enough, even if the concern is belated.
But what does the overpaid, underqualified bureaucratic elite propose to do about it? Answer: absolutely nothing that will get in the way of its enrichment. It is obvious that, for most of us, the increased percentage of old people will mean that most will need, even want, to go on working past the retirement age of 65. Even if individuals do not want it, society as a whole will probably demand it. That is already beginning to happen in Japan and some western countries which are 10 to 15 years ahead of Hong Kong in the ageing process.
But meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the senior civil servants - and employees in the ever-growing number of quasi-government organisations - are sticking to their 'rights' to retire not at 65 but at 60, an age set at a time when life expectancy was at least 10 years less than today. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report says that 'productive employment is now possible well into the 70s'. Yet Hong Kong's elite is, by its own admission, brain dead at 60!
According to the Federation of Civil Service Unions, the lower and middle ranks of the service want to have retirement extended to 65 as they will have difficulty living for 20 or more years on their modest pensions. An extension would also, the Civil Service Bureau admits, save HK$540 million a year now were the age to be raised to 65.
There are two reasons why the upper echelons resist. First, there would be fewer opportunities for promotion up the ladder, doing a brief stint at a senior post then retiring on a suitably fattened pension. Senior Government Officers Association vice-chairman Philip Kwok Chi-tak admitted as much. 'Having the old hands at the helm for all eternity would affect the grooming of the next generation,' he said. In other words, so-called public servants treat the system as a great gravy train, maximising chances for as many as possible to reach the higher ranks, regardless of competence.
Second, raising the retirement age to 65 would limit opportunities for senior officials to jump ship to earn fat salaries by peddling inside influence on behalf of those seeking government contracts and favourable decisions.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption, a creature of the bureaucracy, does not even try to police the cronyism and delayed payoff system that connects senior bureaucrats to the private sector. The Legislative Council and media are sometimes a watchdog. But moving the retirement age to 65, as well as tightening rules on post-retirement jobs, would have a big benefit to the public interest - as well as saving a lot of taxpayers' money on pensions to 60-year-olds.
The Civil Service Bureau says the government has no intention of changing the retirement age.
Meanwhile, ordinary people face the prospect of government support for per capita age allowances and health spending being reduced. Low-income earners who have saved regularly have seen those savings whittled away by negative real returns on bank deposits.
Adding to the looming age crisis is a birth rate that is only half the replacement level (if those to mainland mothers without right of abode are excluded). Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may want us all to follow his Catholic Church and stop using condoms.
A better solution to the fertility drought would be, as France and Scandinavia have found, to reduce the cost of having children, through direct support payments and nursery schools. But that would be 'socialism'.
For the likes of the chief executive and financial secretary, socialist featherbedding (plus cronyism) is reserved for one class of people - the senior civil service.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator