I once "lectured" Leung Chun-ying on the need to introduce early democratic reform to salvage his troubled administration. The chief executive promptly cut me off and curtly said the needs of the elderly and poor are far more urgent.
I actually agreed with him, but I am afraid we as a community have, justifiably or not, decided that the defence of political rights takes precedence over social welfare and entitlement protection for the needy. In fact, we think heritage protection and environmental - "green" - causes are more important than the need to tackle poverty. Why is that?
There is a fascinating chapter on these "choices" we made collectively from the 1980s onwards in a new book, Poverty in the Midst of Affluence: How Hong Kong Mismanaged Its Prosperity by the brilliant Leo Goodstadt, who gave a talk yesterday on the subject at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The three post-handover administrations may have been progressively discredited and brought into disrepute, but the traditional government stance against what may be called creeping welfarism, a narrative we inherit from the British colonials, remains dominant in our community. To be fair, Leung actually worries about such issues and has launched some welfare initiatives, unlike his two predecessors.
You would think the welfare advocacy for the poor would be a classic agenda for both the pan-democratic camp such as the Democratic Party and the leading pro-Beijing unions like the Federation of Trade Unions. As it is, neither side has been particularly active in developing an anti-poverty agenda; hence Goodstadt's chapter title - An absence of advocates: how the welfare lobby lost its voice.
Remember between 1 and 1.2 million Hong Kong people live in poverty and f ace the grim realities that the more privileged among us never have to worry about. Goodstadt's key argument is that the severity of their neglect and suffering is mainly created by the government both before and after the handover because we loath to spend on welfare. But I think the dominant political parties are also to blame because besides piecemeal solutions, no party has made anti-poverty its platform. It's time to change that; our conscience demands it.