Tsang's address lives up to low expectations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am

In the run-up to his penultimate policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen stressed he would not lead a lame-duck administration. But the government was careful not to raise hopes of ground-breaking measures ahead of the speech. As a result, Tsang did not so much disappoint yesterday as rise to low expectations.

He sprang one surprise by excluding property purchases from the eligible assets for investment migrants. But this was at best a symbolic nod to concerns about the volatile market. Sadly, he was more predictable when it came to tackling our city's ageing population. This, as one insider had tipped, is to be left to the next administration despite Tsang stating recently that it would be one of his biggest challenges.

Tsang was right to focus on the soaring property market and growing wealth gap, which have become the biggest public concerns. He announced measures intended to stabilise the property market and better support low-income families, while also boosting welfare for the elderly. But the prescriptions, while welcome, treat the symptoms, not the causes. Critics will be tempted therefore to say they heard that lame duck quacking. That would not be entirely fair. It is not that this was a poor policy address so much as that our city has been bereft of visionary leadership for so long.

What could we expect yesterday? Tsang could not at one stroke restore stability and sanity to a property market that has locked half of the city into a price spiral, with the other half locked out. He has said, often enough and rightly, that in trying to make housing more affordable, the government has to be careful not to adopt measures that risk destabilising the market. The pledge to make land available for 20,000 private residential flats a year for 10 years, to be overseen by a committee headed by the financial secretary, is a measured attempt to ensure market stability. The provision of 5,000 small and medium-sized flats for the 'sandwich class' under a rent-for-purchase scheme that subsidises first-time buyers is an acceptable intervention in present market conditions.

We still need more vision. Such measures will buy time and political breathing space until cyclical factors like interest rates weaken demand and prices. Sustainable land and property market policies in an open economy that is now a magnet to cashed-up mainlanders, is another big issue left to Tsang's successor; likewise the growing wealth gap, despite increased assistance to low income families through subsidies and a welfare safety-net fund financed by the government and the business sector.

That said, the lack of vision is partly our fault as well as that of the government. The community has in recent years come to expect policy addresses and budgets to be times of handouts. We talk of the need for vision to solve problems, but are too easily dissuaded from accepting the long-term challenge by reactive, short-term fixes and sweeteners. Also, vocal opposition from various interest groups too easily deters officials from pursuing the policy programmes Hong Kong needs. As a result, our city has not dealt with issues underlying housing, economic diversification, ageing and health.

Tsang notes that while Hong Kong has emerged in better shape than most places from the global financial crisis, it faces increasing risk to its open economy from asset bubbles, fragile recovery and sovereign debt elsewhere. That is a reminder that we cannot keep putting off the hard choices needed to realise the ideal of a prosperous, fair society that remains resilient to external shocks.