Act now, Donald
We are now entering the final act of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's term of office. His policy address in October will probably be his last chance to institute some sort of positive change to help the community face the challenges and uncertainty ahead.
He has highlighted three pressing social problems he would like to address: housing, the ageing population and the widening wealth gap. As part of the public consultation process, he has published a lengthy list of initiatives and spending increases in these areas on the policy speech website. He also essentially asks the community: 'What more do you want done?'
Band-aid measures, like another pilot programme or another extra month of 'fruit money' for our elderly, will not do. We need to look at unresolved problems that are crying out for serious answers, like the long waiting list for all sorts of elderly care services, and the continuing increase of youth unemployment and children living in poverty.
Take the issue of the ageing society. The core concerns for an ageing individual are livelihood security and the ability to find affordable and adequate health and care services. Can the government do something more on retirement protection? Shouldn't it?
The government could start by relaxing the restrictions on the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance for the elderly. Allow the elderly poor to apply for means-tested social security as an individual in need, rather than require the whole family to take social assistance, or the children to abandon responsibility for taking care of their elderly parent with the so-called 'bad son letter'.
Officials could review and find ways to address the inadequacy of the Mandatory Provident Fund, like giving incentives for wage-earners to set up contributory accounts for their non-working spouses. We could also explore the feasibility of raising the level of contributions to increase protection after retirement, and lowering the administration costs.
For a long-term solution to ensuring security in old age for an ageing society, this is surely the time for the government to initiate scientific data collection and engage a wide range of stakeholders to define the problems and potential options for some form of universal retirement protection. This would be a major step in preventing the increase of poverty and the widening of the wealth gap as the population ages.
The wealth gap affects the working population as well, and the administration should be applauded for introducing the minimum wage. This has put in place a social protection floor to address the core problem of the working poor.
The next step could be to help disadvantaged groups find work. Despite the government's long list of employment support programmes, unemployment remains high for young people, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and new immigrants. It is time to take stock and review the effectiveness of the initiatives launched.
One unresolved core problem is the lack of decent work opportunities and discrimination. Job creation and making work more available for disadvantaged groups would be a great help in reducing poverty. To tackle the source of the problem, we may need targeted job skills enhancement, like language training for ethnic minorities and trial job positions for youths, to increase their chances for employment in the competitive job market.
We should also consider positive discriminatory employment measures, like tax incentives for employers to give more opportunities to people with disabilities. One practical step is for the government to implement a quota of 3per cent of civil service jobs for people with disabilities.
Social mobility, such as opportunities to move up the career ladder, is important for reducing the wealth gap, and this depends on better educational opportunities. More subsidised university places would make a real difference. Currently, only 18 per cent of our young people have access to a subsidised university education - well below the level in other comparable developed economies. Can the government pledge to raise the ratio to 20 per cent or even 25per cent in the coming five years?
One of the chief executive's undelivered promises is a long-term plan for social welfare. Services have been lagging behind demand. The government has pledged a maximum waiting time for public housing of three years. Other people in need of services, like the frail elderly and disabled children, need a similar commitment to cut short the misery of waiting for services for years. Service provision requires planning for manpower and premises, and this cannot be done via the incremental yearly budgeting process.
One practical step forward the current government can deliver is to work out a five-year plan including a projection of demand in service manpower, especially paramedical support, and premises. This would ensure that the provision of services meets demand.
With the chief executive planning for his final act, he should ask himself what sort of legacy he wants to leave behind. This act will be at least as important as the curtain-raiser for the next show.
Christine Fang Meng-sang is chief executive of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service