A city of Hong Kong's size, over- populated and under-resourced, badly needs an intelligent population and an intelligent immigration policy. Yet, no jurisdiction has a more passive approach to its population control through immigration.
Two recent hot-button issues show how unprepared we are in this all-important matter: the right of foreign domestic workers to claim permanent resident status, and the entitlement of children born to mainland women to live in Hong Kong.
Even the vice-premier referred to human talent being Hong Kong's most important resource in his recent speech at the University of Hong Kong. But the special administrative region government has not thought the issue through carefully, much less taken proactive measures.
To be sure, we have a programme for investor immigrants. But to dampen property prices, the government raised the threshold of investment funds from HK$6.5 million to HK$10 million, and excluded property from consideration as an eligible investment. The government ignores the need to create employment opportunities. In the US, by contrast, job creation is the focus. The minimum sum of investment of US$1 million could be lowered to US$500,000 if the money were to go to a region of high unemployment or a rural area. And the investment would have to lead to the creation of 10 full-time jobs. In Hong Kong dollars, that is about HK$4 million. Our requirement is 21/2 times higher, and 21/2 times less attractive.
As early as 2009, I called for the creation of a new immigrant category - the entrepreneurial immigrants - that qualifies entrants on the investment of just HK$2 million, as long as it creates at least five jobs. To make the programme more attractive, the government should offer tax incentives while the qualified candidates wait to become permanent residents during their first seven years of stay.
As for skilled immigrants, we offer something no other jurisdiction has offered: allowing the applicant to settle here first, then look for a job, whereas in other places such as Britain and the United States, the applicant must provide proof of a confirmed job offer. With this lowered threshold, we should have been attracting applicants in droves. But this is not the case. According to government figures released last year, fewer than 1,500 people were admitted between 2006 and 2009, far below its quota of 1,000 per year. Why?
Some people blame the failure of this programme on the length of continuous residence required before qualifying for permanent resident status. Singapore has a much less restrictive requirement: any foreigner who holds a Singapore work visa for a professional or managerial job may apply for permanent residency. Age and education qualifications are among the considerations, but there is no minimum residency requirement.
I have no problem with the seven-year residence requirement. After all, we are looking for people who are committed to Hong Kong, not those whose primary purpose is to get their hands on a permanent identity card and leave.
I think the failure of our skilled immigrant programme is largely attributable to insufficient publicity, or even misleading advertising. Mainland media representatives have pointed out that the cases of successful application are invariably linked to big-name artists and entertainers such as Lang Lang and Zhang Ziyi, resulting in many talented people precluding themselves from the programme. Our trade offices on the mainland should play a more active role in spreading the word on what types of talent we need.
Under the scheme, many entertainment and athletic stars qualify by virtue of their high scores under the 'achievement points system'. But there is also the 'general points system', which takes into account the applicant's level of education, work experience and language proficiency. Scoring high 'general points', however, is no guarantee of success. In the final analysis, it depends on Hong Kong's market needs. Many people are thus discouraged from applying for residency, considering it a waste of time.
I believe we can make the system work better by making the points award more explicit, listing those categories of applicants who are entitled to bonus points, such as whether their occupations fall under the six new industries (testing and certification, medical services, innovation and technology, culture and creative industries, environmental industry and education services), and whether they will contribute to our economic transformation.
This will have the added benefit of not only attracting the right candidates, but of reassuring Hong Kong people that their employment prospects are not being threatened by the intake of skilled immigrants. Other incentives should also be considered. Perhaps we can steal some ideas from the Canadian model in which assets placed in immigration trust funds and income thus generated enjoy tax-free status for up to five years after landing.
We might even go one step further and offer highly skilled applicants tax-exempt status for seven years while they await their permanent resident status - the higher the skill rating, the higher the tax benefits.
These are a few suggestions for fine-tuning our existing, but ineffectual, programmes. If the government sits on its hands and does nothing, Hong Kong will lose out to our regional competitors in the scramble for talent.
For a city without any natural resources, a non-competitive immigration policy is a policy that contributes to our economic non-competitiveness. This is a fight we can ill-afford to lose. Even a twilight government can still create a new dawn when it comes to thinking about the city's tomorrow.
Michael Tien Puk-sun is vice-chair of the New People's Party and a Hong Kong deputy of the National People's Congress