Decline and pall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 March, 2010, 12:00am

On the day before a choking dust storm turned our already polluted air into a blanket of dirt, I was returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen with two Malaysian-Chinese businessmen I had just met.

The talk turned to the rivalry between Singapore and Hong Kong. One of the Malaysians marvelled at Hong Kong's success, but I was only half listening. My mind was on why the filthy haze that normally hung over Shenzhen seemed even filthier.

The reason, of course, became clear the very next morning when the dust storm caused Hong Kong's worst pollution on record. Staying indoors to avoid the filth, I was reminded of the Malaysian's words.

There was a time when I, too, marvelled at Hong Kong's success. Our jargon was filled with terms like 'can-do spirit' and 'you can't lose betting on Hong Kong'. But how often do you hear people say that now? Are we still a successful city, or was the Malaysian speaking from a perception that no longer holds true?

The government's failure to issue a timely warning of the approaching dust storm was not in itself proof that Hong Kong is no longer successful in everything we do. But the public cynicism over official claims that the science did not exist to issue an early warning is proof that the people no longer believe we have an efficient government.

How can we say we are successful when the price of even a modest flat has climbed so high - while average wages remain so low that most families can never afford to buy one and must depend on government-subsidised homes? Are we a successful city when most members of the younger generation believe owning a home is a dream they will never realise? Can we say we are successful when much of our wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few property tycoons, when the percentage of the working poor is rising, when most in the working class do not have a realistic pension plan, when we do not have enough university places for those who qualify, when most university graduates have to settle for less than HK$10,000 a month, and when young people no longer dare dream of a successful future?

In the US, people chase after the so-called American dream of a college degree, a nice house in the suburbs, a good job, a comfortable life and a happy retirement. Not all Americans achieve this dream but they still believe in it. What is the Hong Kong dream? How many Hongkongers believe it's achievable?

Hong Kong still looks successful, but not everyone feels it. This success is no longer measured by the can-do spirit but by the number of billionaires we have in the global ratings and by our proximity to the mainland. In the past, our can-do spirit sprang from within ourselves, not from an over-reliance on our giant neighbour. How long do you think we could remain one of the so-called Asian tiger economic miracles if we did not have the patronage of Beijing?

Business leaders are now bombarding us with warnings that setting too high a minimum wage would weaken Hong Kong's competitive edge so much that it would affect our success. Success for whom? Businesses measure success by their profit margins. One way to increase that is to pay slave wages. But how successful is the worker who makes HK$20 an hour? Successful enough to be able to afford a relaxing day at the cultural district in West Kowloon we're now spending HK$21 billion to build?

Maybe we can argue that being able to afford so much money to buy ourselves a spot on the world's cultural map is, in itself, a sign of Hong Kong's success. But a sign to whom? To the tourists it's being primarily built for, and to the small sector of our society that can afford to appreciate such things? Or to the struggling families who can only afford government-subsidised homes? Maybe one of those 100,000 who can only afford to live in caged bed spaces can tell us.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster