Focus on helping poor, not hurting rich

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 2:34am

While listening to a talk last week given by Leo Goodstadt, I felt I was back in the good old days when the government's Central Policy Unit was run by people who knew what they were talking about.

There was a time when the unit was a real policy think tank under Goodstadt, its first head. An economist and former journalist, he is erudite and witty. He is as well-versed in Hong Kong's banking system as he is in Thomas Aquinas' view on natural law. Now, the unit has become a power play for people like "Yum Cha" Shiu Sin-por and Sophia Kao Ching-chi.

But apologies, I have digressed. What I really want to write about is Goodstadt's topic last week, which is how Hong Kong "demonises" the poor to keep them down and ignore their plight. He is certainly right that Hong Kong has always been resistant to providing better welfare for the poor. For this, he cited the common myths that people were poor because they were lazy, and that excessive welfare would bankrupt the government.

I agree about the power the second myth has over policymakers, less so on the first. We are now politically correct enough not to - at least overtly - blame the poor for their conditions. But it is true successive administrations loathed the idea of improving our welfare system despite mounting fiscal reserves. Given his campaign pledges, it remains to be seen whether Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will prove friendlier to the poor.

But we are as much to blame as the government. Our society has been almost shameless in glorifying the rich and silencing the poor. The social stigma attached to poverty often means those who should seek welfare refuse to do so because of shame.

Social silence on the poor and vocal celebration of the rich - this has been our dominant social discourse until recently. Alice Poon's seminal Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong and the rise of the "post-1980s" young activists have helped blow the lid on "property hegemony".

But as Goodstadt pointed out, the activists are still too fixated on middle-class issues like Article 23 security legislation and national education. The goal of a more just and fairer society demands our young activists refocus on equalitarianism and helping the poor, not just targeting the rich.