Hong Kong must solve its social problems, not offer cash sweeteners

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 3:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 3:36am


Macau has again sought to appease its citizens with money. This time the handout is even bigger - 9,000 patacas for each permanent resident and 5,400 patacas for non-locals. Along with other sweeteners, the package is estimated to cost the Macau government a record 13 billion patacas. Amid growing discontent fuelled by myriad social and economic problems, the giveaways may bring some feel-good sentiment in the short-run. But it does little to tackle the long-term challenges. The authority needs to invest in the future and come up with a better development plan for the city.

Buoyed by the casino business boom, direct taxes from gaming are expected to flood the public coffers with 95 billion patacas - more than 80 per cent of the city's total revenue this year. Our cash-rich neighbour may think, therefore, that saving for rainy days is not necessary. It can even afford hefty tax rebates, rent waivers and other welfare bonus payments. But like the wheel of fortune, the casino business is not recession-proof. The slump fuelled by the financial crisis in 2008 should be a reminder of the need to diversify the economy.

Chief Executive Dr Fernando Chui Sai-on appears to be mindful of the problems. Expected to run for a second term next year, Chui pledged to diversify the economy and enhance political accountability. But without a comprehensive development blueprint, his final policy address in the current term reads more like a catalogue of goodies aimed at deflecting criticism ahead of re-election.

Macau and Hong Kong are different in many ways, but some problems are common. Social discontent has been rising in both places as inflation and property prices soar. Investments in education, medical care and other social services still leave a lot to be desired. While Hong Kong has made some progress on these fronts over the years, the former Portuguese enclave has yet to formulate a clear plan for social infrastructure development. The money spent on cash handouts given over the past seven years could have yielded more social benefits had it been spent on long-term projects.

Our government is consulting the people on the coming policy address and budget. We trust our officials and politicians will not be tempted to repeat the much-criticised HK$6,000 cash handout of a few years ago. Instead of a spending spree to appease the public, we should invest wisely for tomorrow.