'Forgotten' voices crying to be heard

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2011, 12:00am


No one wants to be poor. Nor, with so much pressure on the rich and powerful to give back to society and the wealth gap getting wider, can the well-heeled feel comfortable crowing too loudly about their prosperity. Those considered to be middle-class should, therefore, feel they are in a good position. That is certainly the case in many parts of the world, but in Hong Kong being in the middle is not necessarily a joyous place to be, either. Rather, being middle-class is cause for frustration, and increasingly so. High property prices mean that home ownership is out of reach. Inflation is rising, but pay increases are small. Year by year, finances are getting tighter.

That has not been the case for the wealthiest 10 per cent of society, as the latest statistics show. Their income rose an average of 15.48 per cent over the past five years. For the poorest 10 per cent wages went up 15.56 per cent in the same period - and they're also entitled to a wide range of government assistance and charitable help. Those employees in the middle get none of that and their salaries increased by little more than half of those figures - 7.84 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the middle classes feel the government is ignoring them. Authorities talk a great deal about the divide between rich and poor, and policies and programmes are heavily focused on reducing it. Most recently, officials launched the Community Care Fund, under which the wealthiest are asked to help the poorest and the government contributes an equivalent amount. The divide is widening - for several years, it has been the worst in the developed world.

When property prices and rents were unreasonably high in the mid-1990s, authorities moved to help the middle class by introducing the sandwich class home ownership scheme. Under pressure from property developers, that was put on hold in 2003, amid concerns about a plunge in property prices. With prices again at high levels, there is pressure for it to be unfrozen. But it is not just housing that is needed; it is also important that people have a say in how they are governed.

Research has long shown that rising affluence and democracy go together. As people rise into the middle class, their aspirations also grow. They want better living standards, improved services, reasonable working conditions and the ability to choose their representatives. To overlook their needs and deny them such rights is to invite discontent.

That is what the government increasingly has to contend with. Housing is one concern, but there are others, from air pollution to perceived poor governance. Authorities should be careful not to pay more attention to one section of society than another. Their policies should be inclusive, so that middle-class people feel they are being consulted and are able to take part in decisions that affect their lives.