Problem of plenty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 February, 2011, 12:00am

The world's eyes have been on the Arab world as Egyptians rose up and forced president Hosni Mubarak from power. It was not only their thirst for democracy that drove hundreds of thousands into the streets. It was a culmination of many factors - most of all, the toll of poverty on people's livelihood. Almost half the Egyptian population lives on less than US$2 a day while food prices continue to soar, there and around the world. No one can cling on to power when people are hungry.

And no one, including Mubarak, should be surprised. It has happened before, most notably in 18th-century French society, when poverty and rising bread prices paved the way to a revolution.

Today we see the same struggle in the developed world, with the ever-widening wealth gap, the inertia of sluggish economies that just will not pick up and growing public discontent. No matter how creatively these governments stretch, borrow or print those dollars, they are barely hanging on to borrowed time with borrowed money. The Irish seemed to have run out of luck when their fiscal troubles gave way to political turbulence, costing the coalition government its coalition.

And, across the Atlantic, US President Barack Obama is fighting the onslaught of harsh criticism for the 2012 budget he released last week. How the Obama administration manages the nation's money will be a deciding factor in the next election.

Louis XVI lost his head because of France's national debt and financial strain. It is the wealth of nations and their people that matter. And this is every government's challenge.

Granted, for the Hong Kong government, the political cost may not be as devastating, but it faces a separate conundrum. Social discontent seems to be reaching a critical point, evidenced by the recent discussions on the new Work Incentive Transport Subsidy scheme. The continuing rise in food prices and the apparent nonchalance of business owners over the financial burden of their low-income workers (think Cafe de Coral) have turned up the heat. Compound that with the HK$600 billion we have in reserves, and the financial secretary is guaranteed a tough time when he unveils the budget on Wednesday. In fact, it will be the administration's most challenging budget yet. On the one hand, Hong Kong has fared well in the financial crisis; on the another, economic recovery has yet to benefit the poor while the US Treasury's mad printing of US dollars and the appreciation of the renminbi has forced them to tighten their already-tight belts. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen seems to know this as he has vowed to devote the rest of his term to tackling livelihood issues to ensure prosperity and stability. His financial secretary's budget will show how serious he is.

How the administration plans to use the HK$600 billion pot of gold will no doubt be the focal point of the budget. It is unlikely that it will just send each and every one of us a cheque in the mail as fiscal reserves aren't spoils to loot and divide just because people are angry. They are there for rainy days, and (un)fortunately, our government has traditionally been pessimistic in its forecasts of those storms.

Our 'surplus problem' may be envied by other governments but it doesn't make the government's difficult task of using it wisely and effectively any easier. Creating unsustainable entitlement programmes for an ageing society would be irresponsible, as would leaving the poor to their own devices. One-time handouts to placate public discontent will be unimaginative and, ultimately, ineffective.

Striking a balance and providing solutions - not just relief measures - to fight the greedy for the needy are what the people expect from the government. With this government's remaining months coinciding with politically supercharged election years, the budget will determine whether this administration will go out with a bang or a whimper.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA