So, how well did John Tsang listen?
Regina Ip says while John Tsang rightly heeded the cries for help in business, in other areas of the budget he should have closed his ears to bureaucratic naysayers and lobbyists
For some, "déjà vu" or "underwhelmed" does not begin to describe the unbearable ennui after listening to the financial secretary's budget speech last Wednesday. The budget contains the same gross underestimation of the fiscal surplus; the same old package of handouts to alleviate poverty; and the same old method of using off-current account seed funds to address social ills. Is it really so hard to find a silver lining or two in John Tsang Chun-wah's playbook?
Tsang cannot be faulted for trying hard to plough back no less than HK$33 billion of the anticipated fiscal surplus of over HK$64 billion to those identified by the government as being most in need. Such "freebies" as rates and salaries tax rebates, and double payment of social security allowances, have become standard items of his relief packages for the middle class and the underprivileged.
But hidden in the speech is also a quiet but firm re-affirmation of his economic and fiscal principles - the need to maintain a low and simple taxation system; adhere rigorously to the policy of living within our means; and raise our productivity through investment in education and training, to boost our economy.
The question is: is Tsang's adherence to old principles sufficient to meet the economic and social challenges facing Hong Kong today?
While some complain that Tsang has not dished out sufficient "sweeteners" to help the middle or lower classes, the greatest failure of his budget is arguably his inability to map out a strategic vision for Hong Kong's long-term economic development. Even though he focused on the economy right from the start, and spelt out specific measures to strengthen our "pillar industries" and nurture "emerging industries", there was no mention of the six priority industries identified by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in 2009.
Presumably they have been quietly dropped, but John Tsang owes us an explanation why. He should also tell us his criteria for selecting the industries that would match the comparative and competitive advantages of Hong Kong.
To his credit, Tsang did respond, albeit belatedly, to some long-standing cries for support. His pledge to reserve land in New Territories West to develop our high-end logistics and trading industries is a move in the right direction. In doing so, Tsang has no doubt taken the advice of our Customs & Excise Department, which has a keen understanding of Hong Kong's strength in meeting the tight transport schedules of time-critical parts and components.
Tsang also heeded the request for help from the financial sectors. For the fund and asset management industries, he promised "a clear and competitive tax environment" - profits tax exemption for offshore funds and private equity funds. For the captive insurance industry, Tsang promised a reduction in profits tax. Yet even these measures may be too little, too late. Some fiscal experts ask whether they are sufficiently attractive vis-à-vis those offered by arch-rival Singapore.
There is evidence that Tsang's fiscal policy has been buffeted by headwinds from the usual two sources of turbulence - political lobbies and the bureaucracy. The fingerprints of the former were evident in Tsang's plan to allocate HK$50 million to buy the "outstanding artworks" of local visual artists. The allocation smacks too much of "pork" to buy the goodwill of local artists. It is not clear how such overt, one-off state support would foster the development of our local visual arts industry.
Particularly disappointing was the proposed injection of HK$480 million into the Government Scholarship Fund to set up scholarships for outstanding local students to take "degree courses or teacher training programmes in prestigious overseas universities".
The original idea that came from a political party was to inject HK$1.7 billion into the fund to finance 25 postgraduate scholarships and 50 undergraduate scholarships for students pursuing world-class programmes in top universities. Over time, such a plan would produce a pool of world-class talent of sufficient depth and breadth to lead Hong Kong forward.
For reasons best known to the Education Bureau, Tsang ended up drastically curtailing the scope of the programme. Education officials explained that priority would be given to those who study English or pre-school education. But don't they know that many top universities offer education at graduate rather than undergraduate level, and that undergraduates typically do not specialise in pre-school education? Or that one does not have to major in English to acquire a high standard of proficiency in it? Top graduates in history or political science would be as competent in English as English majors.
Moreover, it is by no means certain that top students are good teachers.
As it stands, the watered-down scholarship scheme is inadequate, whether for grooming local talent or training good teachers. It is not only a sop to teachers, or their advocates, but a bungled piece of work by bureaucrats with blinkered vision. As several legislators have already complained, this scheme would probably end up being a sad waste of public funds.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party