What will the New Year hold? Can there be another windfall like last year's HK$6,000 post-budget handout for permanent residents over 18? It seems unlikely with the estimated HK$38 billion giveaway continually being disparaged as a gratuitous sop to public discontent over a widening wealth gap. Still, the government is an enviable position of holding fiscal reserves of about HK$618 billion and can take a long-term view to tackling schisms arising from structural shifts in society and the economy. Ahead of the new budget, leaders in community services, and some of the people they are helping, describe what they wish to see.
Support of Chinese-language learning for minority students
Dr Raees Baig, executive committee member of rights organisation Hong Kong Unison and a representative of the social welfare sector of the Election Committee that will select the next chief executive
Being able to master the local language has a direct bearing on ethnic minority students' integration into local society and upward social mobility, be they new immigrants or locally born children of South Asian parents. But many who attend designated schools are learning little Chinese.
It makes effective teaching and learning difficult when students of diverse abilities and backgrounds are put in the same classes. It also amounts to racial segregation, a violation of the Race Discrimination Ordinance, to allocate ethnic minority students to those schools. Despite our pleas, the Education Bureau has failed to boost support for Chinese-language learning for ethnic minority students in either designated or mainstream schools. We will try further dialogue, but if no progress is made we are prepared to file complaints to the Equal Opportunities Commission and seek a judicial review of the Bill of Rights.
In mainstream schools, ethnic minority students often lag behind their peers academically due to their limited grasp of Chinese. They are at a disadvantage, and their weak foundation prevents many from fulfilling the Chinese-language requirement for admissions into local universities. School-based immersion classes in Chinese are essential until they can master the language. Additional or remedial Chinese lessons should be provided from kindergartens to secondary schools for new immigrants. We need Chinese-language teachers with cultural sensitivity. Indeed, teaching ethnic minority students can be made a degree major at universities. We also need to provide parents with information to help them identify the right school for their children.
Just a small chunk of the billions the government spent last year on its HK$6,000 giveaway would improve the prospects of minority students.
Rent allowance for poor families and more public housing
Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation
People living in cage homes and cubicles are those who need help most right now. The deadly incidents in the past two years threatening these tenants - fire and building collapse - are something that I don't want to see any more. Their living environment is dire, and rent has grown so rapidly - by 20 per cent, according to research - their frozen incomes cannot cover the cost, causing flats to be subdivided into smaller and smaller units. They can live in only increasingly smaller spaces.
I resent the government's handout in the last budget address. We always emphasise appropriate use of money. What they did is the total opposite. Public funds should be used for society's optimal benefit. What's the point of dividing up the sum and giving each person HK$6,000? People spend it going to restaurants, buying new smartphones and it's gone. It doesn't do anything. For grass-roots families, it may be of some relief, but it'll be best if the resources can be grouped and focused on helping them instead. Many grass-roots residents say the HK$6,000 doesn't help in the long run; but having a job and a house do. Housing and poverty are very much related.
There are so many people who don't need the handout at all. We're talking about HK$40 billion in total. The Community Care Fund is sponsoring school lunches for more than 100,000 impoverished children, and that uses only about HK$130 million per year. If the HK$40 billion were allocated for that purpose, we wouldn't be able to use it up for more than 300 years.
If the sum was used to build public housing - each unit costs about HK$500,000 - we could have 80,000 units, which would alleviate a lot of housing problems.
That's why I'm really angry. The money should be allocated to those who are most in need. And what's even more annoying is that it was done because Financial Secretary [John Tsang Chun-wah] and [Chief Executive] Donald Tsang Yam-kuen wanted to rescue their political careers after an unpopular budget address.
In the coming budget address, I hope they can come up with ways to help tenants of cage and cubicle homes. There are several ways to do this. Although public housing can't be built overnight, I wish they can offer rent allowance to lessen their financial pressure. This is what the Community Care Fund has been considering, but finances are limited. The government should also review immediately the quantity of public housing to be built.
Both candidates running for chief executive are stressing the issue. It is insufficient to build 15,000 units annually because the number of new applicants per year has gone up to more than 30,000. This is also an indication of wealth polarisation; more people are falling below the poverty line. Building more public housing is the key. We suggest that at least 35,000 units be built every year - the same as the pre-1997 level.
Stop leasing land
Cyrus Lo Sai-man, 28, website editor
To me it was lazy to give out HK$6,000. Yes, it's nice to have that money, but to most Hongkongers it was just extra spending money. Many of us don't really need it. If the government has so much money left over, they should use it to buy back land from the property developers or stop the policy of leasing lands to the highest bidder; that way property prices won't be driven up. Hong Kong's biggest problem is the high rent.
HK$30 million per month to upgrade 10,000 subsidised residential places into nursing home places
Edward Leung Man-fuk, president of the Hong Kong Association of Gerontology
Given limited funding, priority should be given to the weakest in society when allocating resources. Those who are bedridden or wheelchair-bound and are living in poor conditions in private homes for the elderly suffer a lot now. More than 20,000 elderly people are queuing for places in subsidised residential homes, which are well-run. With the waiting time averaging three years, many have to make do with a place at a poorly run private centre.
Only four new subsidised homes (each providing about 800 places) are built each year. To divert the bedridden living in private homes to properly run institutions more subsidised residential homes should be converted into nursing homes. There are now just six subsidised nursing homes providing about 2,000 places.
The government pays HK$10,000 a month for a subsidised residential place. Upgrading this to a nursing home place costs HK$3,000 more. There are 17,000 fully subsidised residential places now. If we transform 10,000 of them into nursing home places, it will costs only an extra HK$30 million per month. The weakest in society should be entitled to proper protection in our affluent society.
The shrinking workforce and ageing population will put a severe burden on society in future. Under the mandatory provident fund, 10 per cent of salary is set aside for future retirement, with employer and employee each contributing 5 per cent. There's no way such a scheme can give people a decent retirement. In Singapore it is 20 per cent. The government should review our retirement protection scheme and consider providing universal pension.
People aged 70 or above could be exempt from the means test and get an old-age allowance of HK$1,075 per month. The age threshold should be lowered so that the less elderly fall into the safety net and can rely on the dole in their twilight years. The government has pledged a HK$50 billion fund to help pay the medical bills for the high-risk people. But the fund covers only medical emergencies such as strokes. Medical bills for chronic illnesses are not covered. The burden on our medical system will mostly come from the caring of the chronically ill in the future. The government should pledge another HK$50 billion fund to cover chronic illnesses.
More financial assistance for the poor
Yeda Lui, 21-year-old single mother
'If we have a budget surplus, the government should improve the financial aid for the poor. From my experience, the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme doesn't provide enough and is full of contradictions. I'm a young single mother who's still in school, yet the scheme provides me with only about HK$4,000 a month. I have to work three part-time jobs to make ends meet. My daughter will attend kindergarten soon and the government won't provide full aid for her tuition because I'm not a full-time worker. Their theory is that I shouldn't be going to school; instead, I should be focusing on working as many hours as possible. The scheme is designed to support those who are content with working a full-time, minimum wage job and not those who want to break out of the cycle. The scheme wants me to work all day at a 7-Eleven instead of working half a day and then spending the other half trying to get an education. They should focus on helping those in need - not just single mothers, but also for the elderly and the handicapped.'
No increase in tobacco tax
Man Sung-kwong, 19, unemployed
I'm a Form Five graduate, and I'm now taking two courses - bartending and make-up. I'm not young any more, and I don't want to continue the ridiculous lifestyle I had when I was younger. I was with a gang and constantly engaged in fights. Once, more than 30 of us confronted another group with broken glass bottles. I later learned from a news report that I got the wrong target and mistakenly hurt a social worker. There was another time when a large gang popped out to attack my friends and me just after I had finished getting a haircut. They were jabbing us with keys. My body was full of wounds, and I had four stitches in my head.
When I look back, it was stupid. The realisation of how meaningless gang life was - on top of being expelled from school when I was in Form Three - made me decide to change.
Problem students like me were always assigned to a social worker. That's when they introduced me to different activities and courses and I became more involved. I've found my direction. I like drinking and the job of a bartender fascinates me, so I've decided to take a course in it. I'm on level two now, and when I finish level three and take an exam, I can be a certified bartender. I'm looking to this as my career. The make-up course is more of an interest and serves as a backup should I fail to be a bartender.
When I got the HK$6,000, I was quite happy. It's about a month's salary, but I spent it all very quickly. I had to pay fees for both courses; the four-lesson bartending course alone is HK$1,200. I don't usually spend a lot, and when I tried to buy new stuff for myself with the remaining money, I was surprised to find how expensive things are now. I don't have a job now, but I'm supporting myself with savings from working part time as a waiter earlier. The price of everything is rising, but there isn't much change to how much people are earning, I'm a smoker. In the past, a pack of cigarette costs only about HK$30. But now it's HK$50, which is even more expensive than a meal. I wish the government would stop increasing the tobacco tax. They don't know how unaffordable it is for us, and it's not something that we smokers can drop overnight.
Smaller class sizes, with more teaching staff, especially for liberal studies
Liu Ah-chuen, convenor, Joint Committee of the Hong Kong Secondary Schools Council and Secondary School Principals Association of 18 Districts
The new senior secondary curriculum has brought tremendous challenges. Teachers are under increased pressure because of the school-based assessment now required for most subjects. As a recent survey by the joint committee shows, principals from 230 schools - about half of the total - believe the new curriculum is difficult to grasp.
We need more teachers and teaching assistants, especially for the new core subject of liberal studies. Being inquiry-based, the subject requires interactive teaching and small group projects to be carried out. But this is not feasible under the present staffing arrangement. Ideally, students should be taught in groups of between 20 and 30. The current class size in aided schools is 36 for Form One and 40 for Form Six.
In our survey, 77 per cent of respondents agreed class size should be cut to 30 students. This is important so teachers can provide more care for students. Now, schools have to employ teaching assistants to help do research for liberal studies, help with field trips and other group projects.
We hope the Education Bureau will raise the class-teacher ratio from 1.7 to 2.0 for junior forms, and from 1.9 to 2.3 for senior forms. That means an average of six more teachers per school and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Funds to protect heritage buildings
Winnie Poon Yam-bing, 55, restaurant server
Hong Kong should use the money to preserve heritage structures because the property developers who keep tearing down old buildings and roads to build malls are destroying not only our city's heritage, but also the planet's. If you look at places like Macau, they're very good at keeping their heritage and architecture alive. Why can't we do that here?
Long-term funding for youth at risk
Amy Fung Dun-mi, deputy executive director of the Hongkong Federation of Youth Groups
Funded by one-off government subsidies, many of our projects come to a halt after two to three years. No matter how good the idea is or how big an impact the project has on young people, it has to stop when the money dries up. This mode of funding affects the continuity of our work. Our Youth Support Scheme, which is aimed at juvenile offenders, received recurrent funding after it proved effective in reducing the rate of reoffending. But it's a rare example.
In recent years, outreach youth work has gone online, which does not require huge funding. We launched a pilot scheme on cyber-youth work in 2002. Teams of social workers seek out at-risk youths through forums, blogs and social networks, befriend them and give counselling. This year, we finally got a grant of HK$5 million over three years to do this. We hope that the government can pledge recurrent funding for such programmes, which must be done continuously to have lasting effects. Several million every two to three years puts only a small dent in the public coffers, but it can make a huge difference to the lives of at-risk youths.
From my experience interacting with at-risk youths, I find they do not like classes with fixed schedules. If we enrol them in normal classes, they stop attending after showing up once or twice.
So this year, we introduced an overnight youth learning scheme in Tseung Kwan O, transforming the sports centre into a walk-in learning centre once every two weeks. The centre, which runs until 2am, has proved popular. They walk in and learn about grooming and magic tricks free of charge. We are using our own money to run it. All it takes is about HK$4,000 for instructors' salaries each month.
It will cost less than HK$1 million per year to expand the scheme to all 18 districts. We should think outside the box and run programmes that take into account the traits of at-risk youths. Such teenagers, who have little education and low confidence and skills, are the most disadvantaged.
The double-cohort this year, when students under the old and new education systems graduate at the same time, will push up the youth unemployment rate. With the introduction of the new six-year secondary education system, our society has embraced mainstream schools at the expense of vocational training. Nearly all the vocational colleges and technical schools were closed over the years in the push for inclusive education. But young people who do not fit in still drop out. If they are not given help in their rebellious years, they will become prime fodder to become malcontents or work for the triads.
Anti-inflation measures, more youth facilities
Lam Tsz-sum, 18, Form Five student, part-time waiter
I started working part time when I was 15. I'm the youngest in my family, but my parents stopped giving me pocket money after I started working. If I didn't work, I wouldn't have money even for lunch at school. I'm now working at a restaurant in Causeway Bay and earn about HK$4,000 per month. I hope the HK$28 minimum wage won't be forever because I'm spending as much as I'm earning day by day. I can't see a way through. There are so many practical problems out there that we want answers from the government. But all they do is fool the citizens and please them by distributing money. Inflation is a serious burden, and it's something I'd love to see the government deal with. When I was younger, I could go out for a day with HK$50 in my pocket. But now doing similar things - having a meal, watching movies and shopping - may cost well over HK$200.
I love playing the guitar and formed a band with friends from school. We have nowhere to practise, but a youth worker told us about band rooms that we can use in youth centres, and we've start playing in them. But it'd be nice if the organisation got more resources; we try to get together to practise at least once a week, but there are so many restrictions and so much demand that sometimes we have to skip practice. I used to dream of us becoming a great band, but without proper facilities and enough time to practise - I have to study and work part-time - I feel it very hard to achieve.