In the shadow of wealth

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am


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I was in London last month and gave a talk at the London School of Economics on suicide prevention in Hong Kong. I was bolstered by the news that the British government was conducting its first-ever national survey of subjective well-being.

Broadening our measures of success from the purely economic is a necessary first step in improving the quality of life in our cities. A city's success, whether it's London or Hong Kong, depends not only on financial prowess but also on the well-being and mental health of residents. The fact that Hong Kong has a relatively high rate of suicide - 13.6 per 100,000 people, compared with nine per 100,000 people in Britain - is a telling sign that all is not well here.

In the shadow of its world-class transport system and iconic landscapes of wealth, there lies another city. Despite a 40per cent increase in per capita gross domestic product over the past decade, about 30per cent of those on the lowest incomes actually make less money than they did a decade ago, and 10per cent of the working population still earn less than HK$78,000 a year.

Hong Kong's Gini coefficient, a statistical measure of income disparity, is ranked as one of the highest in the world, and social mobility, especially among the younger generation, is stagnating.

In London, too, financial prowess has not yet translated into overall well-being: gross value added per capita is 71per cent higher than the national average, but unemployment - at 10.2per cent - is significantly higher than in all other regions except the Northeast.

Londoners do live longer than residents of most British regions, but new data on subjective well-being suggests that these longer lives are not necessarily happier lives: Londoners reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and significantly lower levels of life satisfaction, sense of worth and happiness.

In Hong Kong, improving mental health means paying greater attention to our most isolated and vulnerable groups and communities. Many poorer residents live far away in new towns built to accommodate Hong Kong's rising population in the 1970s. Despite the connectivity provided by our transport system, low-income groups can become isolated owing to the greater travel costs and distances.

Such physical isolation has been compounded by problems of inadequate job opportunities and public facilities. Residents are relatively young and less well-educated and come from lower socio-economic backgrounds than the general population of Hong Kong. These vulnerable groups face a host of problems, including low wages, insecure or unstable jobs, domestic violence and suicide.

Hong Kong's teenagers have increasingly turned to suicide over the past decade, and older people have a suicide rate that is about twice that of the general population. Troubled teens are less likely to seek the help or support they need in order to address their problems, and many have low self-esteem and lack problem-solving skills and family support.

For older people, poor physical health and the high cost of public transport create a lack of mobility, weakening their social and family support networks and therefore isolating them from the wider community. Already in Hong Kong, there are 334 people aged below 15 years or above 64 years (the dependent population) to every 1,000 people aged between 15 and 64 years (the productive population). As our population 'greys' further, suicide risk for the elderly is likely to become a growing problem.

We should learn from Britain's efforts to measure subjective well-being. But collecting data alone is not enough to improve the quality of life of our city. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions. How can we continue to reconcile skyrocketing property prices on Hong Kong Island with the fact that half of all households have a living space of less than 500 sq ft?

If Hong Kong's income distribution becomes more unequal, can the city really claim to be a model of sustainable development? We are investing in a new high-speed rail connection to the mainland, but there is a substantial proportion of our community that is being left behind and disconnected from their own rapidly changing city. Is Hong Kong risking the overall well-being of its inhabitants?

Even with outstanding economic achievements and world-class infrastructure, a city is only as strong as its weakest link.

Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying says he is determined to make a difference to the community. The current government has neglected issues concerning changes to our living space, social morbidity and mental wellness. Now is the right time to rectify the shortcomings so that the well-being of residents can be enhanced. We are not asking for revolutionary changes, but some evolutionary changes must be made, for example, by building inclusive cities and investing in projects that improve life for the poorest and most vulnerable.

The British government's well-being measurement is a lesson for cities like Hong Kong that wrongly equate economic progress with overall improvements to living standards.

Paul Yip Siu-fai is professor of social work and administration and director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong