We hear a lot about Hong Kong's future economic role. Much of the discussion seems to be little more than guesswork about which pillar industries or hi-tech sectors the government should encourage. Many economists, however, would say that the government should stick to the basics: welfare, education, housing, health care and transport.
These are all areas where government must play a critical role. Much of this is about upgrading or reform: exploring new ways to fund retirement and welfare provision for the elderly, modernising our exam-based education system, boosting housing supply, and modernising our approaches to planning and pollution.
Transport - especially affordable and dependable mass transit - is essential to a vibrant economy. It is one area this city has got right. Yet times and circumstances change, and the rail and bus systems that served us well 20 years ago need reforms of their own.
Recent reports on the transport system show a picture of a Hong Kong that gets things done. Our rail system is expanding its capacity and reaching into previously unserved neighbourhoods. These comprise extensions into Kennedy Town and Kwun Tong, a new line from Admiralty to Aberdeen, and a major new artery linking Sha Tin with Kai Tak/East Kowloon and Admiralty. There is also the express link to Guangzhou.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of this expansion on people and business in Hong Kong. Links like these improve life for commuters; they also open up these districts to new types of business. Most of these projects will be up and running by 2015-16, with the Sha Tin-Central link taking another four to five years.
This could be an opportunity to reduce street-side air pollution, as commuters move to rail (currently 33 per cent of trips) from buses (37 per cent). The bus fleet, too, will have very important, if changing, roles.
Kowloon Motor Bus, to take the most prominent example, has seen passenger numbers decline by some 16 per cent over a 10-year period. This figure masks some major variations by district. It would make sense in terms of costs and traffic congestion to reorganise bus routes. Some media reported that KMB has 20 routes with an average of just 13 passengers per trip, losing a total of HK$14 million a month. There will always be a case for subsidising some routes to rural communities, but many of the big loss-making services overlap with other bus routes and/or the MTR.
The bus companies need to overcome political opposition, because rationalisation offers some real benefits. Hong Kong needs new types of bus services. These include express routes, which can link certain New Territories communities to the downtown faster and more comfortably than rail. And they include niche feeder services, like shuttles between estates and rail stations.
The operators are also working on electric vehicles, and upgrading facilities to improve passenger information and access for the elderly and disabled.
In short, our mass-transit system is adapting to meet Hong Kong's future needs. It is also doing it while remaining very good value for money; the average Hong Kong household spends about 8 per cent of its expenditure on transport, compared with 14-16 per cent in Britain or Singapore.
If Hong Kong does not develop to its full potential in the coming years, it will not be because of its mass-transit system. It is a world-class system, widely envied overseas.
Can we say the same about our retirement system and our health care, housing and welfare arrangements for our growing aged population? Maybe not - but if we can do it with transport, shouldn't we be able to do it for the others?
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council