An open-and-shut case, given the choice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 November, 2010, 12:00am

The Gallup Organisation has just released its latest findings on where people would live if given a choice. This was a massive project, with 350,000 people interviewed in 148 countries over three years.

Not surprisingly, many in the poorest nations want to move to rich countries. Thus, 38 per cent of the people in West Africa want to emigrate. And the populations of Canada, the United States and Australia would increase substantially.

In Asia, however, there are some odd findings. While elsewhere in the world people want to relocate to developed economies, more people in Asia want to leave three of the region's five developed economies - South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong - than want to move there.

This must surely be a reflection of the political realities, as South Korea faces an unpredictable, nuclear-armed North Korea. Taiwan, too, faces an uncertain future, with the mainland insisting on reunification.

Hong Kong also presents an interesting case. It is very much a developed economy and attracts immigrants from the mainland, South Asia and even Africa. But, while many people may want to move to Hong Kong, an even larger number want to move out.

And so, according to the Gallup findings, Hong Kong would suffer a 12 per cent drop in population. The corresponding brain drain would be worse, at 28 per cent, as those who left would be better educated than those who arrived.

Japan's population, by comparison, would be stable. The country would have a slight gain in people (1 per cent) while suffering a 13 per cent loss in educated people. But while the population increase would be relatively small, young people would account for 23 per cent of this increase. This should be good news for Tokyo, as it considers how to tackle its ageing population.

Taiwan would suffer the most of Asia's developed economies. It would lose a fifth of its population, 28 per cent of its young people and one-third of its educated strata.

In the region, only Singapore stands to gain, and massively. Far more people want to move to Singapore than leave, so its overall population would triple, the number of people with tertiary education would quadruple and its young people would increase six-fold. It's a strong endorsement of Singapore.

The Hong Kong government and leaders on the mainland should ponder these findings. Why do so many people in Hong Kong and Taiwan wish to leave?

The uncertainty that Hong Kong and Taiwan have to cope with is the result of policies drawn up in Beijing, particularly the way the Communist Party treats its people. Such concerns can only be eased by a basic change in Beijing's approach.

Some things can also be done locally. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in his policy address last month, acknowledged the ageing problem and said it 'will bring challenges to our elderly services. We must get prepared.'

But not enough is being done. Fortunately for Hong Kong, many senior citizens want to retire to the mainland. The government should facilitate such movement. The rules for collecting the old age allowance form one major obstacle. By insisting that elderly people live in Hong Kong for a substantial period each year to collect the benefit, the government is making it difficult for them to be with their mainland families, and increasing the burden on Hong Kong.

Instead, it should devise a system where anyone who contributed to Hong Kong by working here for, say, 25 years, could claim the allowance, regardless of where they lived.

This would help the elderly and their mainland relatives and, at the same time, lighten Hong Kong's burden in providing health care and other services for the elderly.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.