A policy vessel adrift, with no compass

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am

The policy address was historically an occasion for the chef executive (or the governor in colonial days) to seize the centre stage, unveil his agenda and assert leadership. Yet, in recent years, it has degenerated into an annual exercise for bashing and baiting the chief executive, with public responses ranging from rage at alleged favouritism to resentment at the lack of genuine care and concern for the plight of the masses. What went wrong?

Political shenanigans apart, successive policy addresses leave much to be desired in terms of providing inspiring ideas to help galvanise society. The 2007 speech was characterised by generous handouts in the form of tax cuts and other 'sweeteners' amounting to billions. Public satisfaction was kept high with such crowd-pleasing ploys. But, in announcing such specific, fiscal measures in his policy address, the chief executive was wading into the financial secretary's preserve. Perhaps that is the biggest problem with Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen: is he more at home functioning as financial secretary or as the leader of the city? Put more bluntly, is he out of his depth as the leader of a society in transition, confronting life-threatening challenges and on the cusp of change?

From year to year, the thinness of the content of the policy address is a disappointment. The fact that the only projects making some progress are the building of railways says a lot about the strengths and limitations of this administration.

Hong Kong's civil servants have been adept at implementing public works projects. Building physical infrastructure is one thing. Building the soft infrastructure vital for the 'progressive development' of our society is another.

The lack of emphasis on the importance of education in raising the long-term productivity of our workforce and the quality of our people speaks volumes about this administration's inability to get its handle on building a truly progressive society.

Ten years after it was first mooted, the West Kowloon Cultural District development continues to list, rudderless, as it enters another round of consultations. Given the uninspiring way it is being handled, chances are high that this mega project could become a visible symbol of this administration's failure to enhance the soft infrastructure - the values, culture, lifestyle and intellect - of our society.

This year's policy address is also worrying for its dearth of intellectual firepower. For an address which prioritises economic development, amazingly little was said on the administration's macroeconomic philosophy, especially why it shifted from its hitherto strongly held 'positive non-interventionism' to its current espousal of a much stronger role by government in guiding development.

There are good reasons for the administration not to be sheepish about this policy change. There have always been competing economic models of growth - former financial secretary Sir Philip Haddon-Cave's much-touted 'positive non-interventionism' was but one of many put forward by myriad policymakers.

As the world tried to rebuild the economy from the devastation of the second world war, different countries attempted different economic models. Some economies like France, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and most prominently China have created economic miracles by building strong 'developmental states', with the government playing a big role in steering development.

In our case, there is a paucity of arguments justifying the change or the selection of the 'six new industries', let alone a comprehensive game plan to make the selection a success. On this score alone, our government is underperforming. The ship of state is truly drifting, if not foundering, in rough seas.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute