My Take

Jumping up and down about poverty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 3:32am

"Poverty" is politics. I put it in quotations because it is exactly like "democracy", a highly contested term that can mean anything depending on your ideology and vested interest. Of course it is also about economics, education and social conditions. But let's just focus on one glaring feature from the government's poverty forum which launched - with much fanfare over the weekend - the city's first poverty line with various calculation methods. That is, we can't seem to talk to each other without shouting and jumping up and down.

So the usual suspects who accused the chief executive and the chief secretary of putting on a show were themselves putting on their own show for news consumption. What was lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung shouting and fighting with security guards about? I have great respect for Chong Chan-yau, head of the Blind Union. And Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung is one of the few pan-dems who has been committed to welfare and poverty alleviation over many years.

But I find it faintly absurd for the two to round on Leung Chun-ying for saying poverty can't be completely eliminated. The chief executive may be impolitic but is being honest. It all has to do with what we mean by poverty.

If we mean that of the extreme-starvation, under-US$2-a-day kind, Hong Kong eliminated that way back in the 1960s. This was the clarion call of economist Jeffery Sachs to end global extreme poverty. He did not mean the type of poverty prevalent in developed economies like Hong Kong, which is structural and much more complicated.

At least give credit to Leung for acknowledging poverty as a major source of social malaise and discontent, instead of ignoring and worsening it like his predecessor. He offered no major solution over the weekend. Hopefully his administration will work out new initiatives with community input in the coming months and years.

But what we are tackling is a different kind of poverty, characteristic of most advanced economies facing extreme income inequalities. This has to do with the capture of the economic and education systems by the wealthy and privileged classes. Only governments can reassert more egalitarian distributions in education and economic growth.