Hong Kong's budget needs ideas not giveaways

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 9:35am

Having delivered five budgets, John Tsang Chun-wah is no doubt a safe pair of hands in the government. But the veteran finance chief should not underestimate people's expectations in his first budget after reappointment. As the chief executive failed to impress the public with his maiden policy speech last month, the burden has now shifted to Tsang. When he tables his sixth budget to the Legislative Council tomorrow, he cannot just pull out the same trick from his old hat to appease an increasingly demanding public. Instead of sticking to his giveaway approach, he should make better use of the record HK$709 billion fiscal reserves to invest in a better future for Hong Kong.

As part of the expectation-management strategy, officials have stepped up efforts to dampen growing speculation on what may or may not be included in the budget. This is understandable, given Tsang is known for his generosity. The relief measures he has delivered in previous years add up to HK$190 billion, a quarter of what our reserves are today.

It appears that Tsang is prepared to dish out a similar package of sweeteners as before, though the amount is likely to be smaller. Politically, it is difficult for him to resist calls for doing more. While self-reliance should be encouraged, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened. It is therefore necessary for the government to do more to help people with genuine needs.

That means Tsang should not just sit on taxpayers' money like Scrooge. If put to proper use, the reserves can effectively address the needs of the grass roots and the middle class. Our robust finances have given Tsang more room to manoeuvre. Instead of just instilling some feel-good sentiments with a giveaway budget, a better way is to increase public spending on education, welfare, health care and the environment.

Unlike previous ministers, who sought to distinguish themselves with clear fiscal policies, Tsang is, regrettably, more defined by his largesse than anything else. He could have done a lot more to tackle many deep-seated problems - such as a widening wealth gap, housing and an ageing population - during his previous term. Tsang may think he is just continuing the same job. But with a new term ahead, the community expects some fresh ideas and proactive initiatives to tackle the outstanding problems. The budget gives Tsang a good chance to come up with better strategies to shape a brighter future.