Hong Kong needs to make hard choices on population policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 12:21am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 12:21am

Not for the first time, the public has been asked to put on its thinking cap for a population policy. What sets the latest consultation apart from previous ones is its breadth and depth. From low fertility rates to an ageing society, from labour importation to upward social mobility, from cross-border integration to recruiting overseas talent, the government has rightly challenged the community to work together to make Hong Kong a better place for all.

The "urgent need" for a comprehensive policy was raised as early as 2002. There has been no shortage of analyses and proposals since then. Leung Chun-ying is the third chief executive to broach the subject. Population is understandably a complex issue. Changing demographics and socio-economic circumstances mean Hong Kong cannot afford to stand still. New challenges require new strategies. The release of the consultation after a year-long study is to be welcomed.

The new mission statement by the government task force is commendable. It underlines the need to nurture a population that drives Hong Kong's development as Asia's world city, without losing sight of the importance of building an inclusive society that enables people to realise their potential. But it will take more than inspiring goals to rise to the challenge. Ultimately, specific solutions are needed.

The steering committee on population policy stopped short of dwelling on specific measures at this stage. Instead, it outlined the challenges ahead along with dozens of questions. For example, life expectancy is expected to rise while the birth rate dips further. By 2041, about one-third of the population will be elderly, which means two adults will have to support one elderly person, compared with 10 supporting one three decades ago. The implications for the economy and public finances cannot be ignored.

The issues raised are nothing new, but they are valid ones, such as the need to replenish the workforce by importing overseas labour. This is worthy of support as long as the interests of local workers are not undermined. Options like encouraging housewives and retirees to re-enter the workforce are also worth considering.

Our future will be shaped by how well these challenges are tackled, and we should not shy away from making hard choices. The government should demonstrate a stronger political will and greater sense of urgency in delivering answers.