Show you care
This year's budget features the biggest government spending since the handover. Total expenditure for the coming year is estimated to reach HK$371.1 billion, 22 per cent up on the previous year. Some HK$43.5 billion will be spent on improving people's livelihood, more than double that of last year. No one can deny it's a very generous budget.
Before the budget, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah had insisted that there would be no sweeteners to help people cope with the rising cost of living. Even though he has handed out billions of dollars of sweeteners, the budget still lags behind the expectations of most Hongkongers, and hence has attracted widespread criticism.
The problem is that our government has still not adapted to the new political climate and changing times, or recognised that officials are accountable to the public.
Tsang has been heavily criticised after splashing out on public spending to alleviate the impact of inflation and offering handouts to poorer citizens. The problem is that most of our officials, Tsang included, are suffering from a civil-service mentality.
To be honest, the government will never please everyone in society no matter how much it puts aside for public spending, unless it copies Macau and Singapore by handing out cash directly to citizens. People will always complain about the inadequacy of government assistance.
To make amends, the best way is through the Community Care Fund proposed in the policy address last year. The fund is meant to enhance the existing social security system and look after those who have fallen outside the social security safety net. It will help promote social justice and harmony, while reducing social conflict as well as anti-rich sentiment. The city's tycoons have shown great interest in contributing to the fund, which shows they want to fulfil their social responsibility to help the underprivileged. It fits the government's policy idea of a people-centred society.
Unfortunately, the government has been dragging its feet in making the fund a reality. The government should expedite the process. The governing committee for the fund has somehow distorted the original concept by proposing to give HK$10 billion to the Monetary Authority for investment and then take the interest that the fund generates, which is about HK$500 million per year, to help the poor.
Honestly speaking, there isn't much the government can do with HK$500 million. If the fund is run that way, it really would be no different from the other recurrent government charity funds and would derail the original idea.
To make it work properly, the government must follow three basic principles. First, it must encourage the business sector to contribute so it can have long-term funding.
Second, it must make sure the handouts go to the needy and funds are allocated to the right projects to alleviate poverty.
Finally, it has to encourage community participation to make the fund work. That would reduce unnecessary administrative costs. The government should allow those in need to approach district councillors for help, who then assess their case, make recommendations and apply for assistance. To make it work effectively, we must allow the fund to reach out to the people regardless of political or geographical boundaries. Every district councillor should help every citizen in need; that's the concept.
Another advantage of this approach is that no one could claim the fund serves to transfer benefits to any particular political party because every party would have equal responsibility. On a wider level, it could help district councillors become more politically active, which would further propel Hong Kong's long-term democratic development.
Proper management and allocation of public funds is a prerequisite of good governance. Now is a good time for our 'chief executive in waiting', Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, to show the good quality of governance by utilising the fund to help as many people as possible.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator