CY Leung's policy address delivers the goods in most departments
Philip Yeung lauds C.Y. Leung for a blueprint that strikes a balance between meeting current needs and planning for the future - and putting the poor and disadvantaged at the heart of new policies
Few expected any surprises from the chief executive's second policy address. In fact, many had no expectations of any kind; a Chinese University survey showed that as many as 45 per cent of people polled were in that category.
But, given the year of disquiet we have been through, there was a sense of urgency about this year's unveiling of Leung Chun-ying's plan of action for Hong Kong.
Leung has been vilified in some quarters, unfairly in my view. Compared with his predecessor, who was known for his "hate the poor" and "cuddle the rich" policies that have left nearly 20 per cent of the population living in poverty, Leung is showing that he is a leader of the people.
After seven or more years of neglect, livelihood issues are finally getting the attention they deserve. To his credit, Leung has been true to his campaign commitment to do something to address poverty, which features prominently in his latest policy address.
While the Commission on Poverty was first initiated in 2005, it was disbanded just two years later, as if its work was done. Now reinstated, the commission has defined the poverty line for the first time in Hong Kong's history and the needs of the working poor are also being catered to. Further, progress in poverty alleviation will be reviewed annually.
In large measure, this policy address was about helping the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the disadvantaged - people who have been socially excluded from a wealthy society.
For those of us who take pride in Hong Kong being an international society, Leung even had something new to offer the South Asian ethnic minorities in our midst. For the first time, they are receiving government attention, in that a Chinese-as-a-second-language curriculum will be put in place in our schools. Leung will also open the doors to employment opportunities within the government for minority citizens as never before.
The policy address was about the problems of the present and the challenges of the future. Education is about the future. My only quarrel with the extra funding for higher education proposed by the chief executive is that it doesn't go far enough. It is the right prescription with the wrong dosage.
There are currently some 28,000 students enrolled in associate degree programmes. Adding only 1,000 University Grants Committee-funded university places for associate degree holders hardly scratches the surface. The quality of these programmes is quite uneven, and there is a stigma attached to them, such that graduates' earnings are sometimes no more than those of secondary school leavers. The government must therefore monitor these programmes closely, and invite businesses to offer internships to these students.
The chief executive is right to endorse the work of the Vocational Training Council and increase its funding support. Perhaps the eventual solution is to phase out those sub-degree academic programmes. Instead, we should increase our publicly funded undergraduate places to bring our rate of university attendance up to world standards while beefing up the Vocational Training Council's capacity.
The administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen largely drew a blank on environmental protection. Leung, by contrast, is lavishing some HK$11.4 billion on subsidising the phasing out of older diesel commercial vehicles. Marine vessels will also be required to reduce the sulfur content of their diesel.
The promotion of green buildings is on the cards, as is waste management through a "pay-as-you-throw" levy. And cyclists will benefit from a bike track from Ma On Shan to Sheung Shui, and eventually Tuen Mun. A new green thinking seems to be taking root within the government leadership.
Despite strong lobbying, the Tsang administration turned a deaf ear to calls for setting up an innovation and technology bureau. If you doubt innovative technology's ability to transform an economy, you only have to look at South Korea and see how far it has come in the past 20 years as a technological powerhouse. So, Leung is to be heartily congratulated for resurrecting the initiative.
Leung campaigned hard on solving our housing problems as a priority. His legacy will no doubt depend on how well he performs in this area. He is promising to increase housing supply by 40 per cent over the next five years, after supply was artificially choked off by the previous administration.
But, much like milk powder for infants, Hong Kong can never meet the insatiable demands of mainland nouveau riche for speculative investment in property. His "Hong Kong land for Hong Kong people" idea must never be shelved.
It takes more than decent housing to make a great city. Hong Kong is now a backwater in major international sports events.
Many organisers of these events have chosen to bypass our city due to a lack of sponsorship or proper facilities. The long-awaited exhibition tennis match in March between Li Na and Samantha Stosur is scheduled to take place in a velodrome. That is sad statement on the state of our sporting infrastructure.
The chief executive is also alive to the economic possibilities of the new "eastern Lantau metropolis" to take advantage of the soon-to-be-completed Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and our direct link to the Pearl River Delta.
All in all, this is a solid blueprint for Hong Kong's immediate and intermediate future, in which the needs of tackling current problems and planning for the future are carefully balanced.
If there is any area for nit-picking, it is in the incremental approach it takes to increasing educational funding. But Leung still deserves three cheers for his new vision and new initiatives.
Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Philipkcyeung2@yahoo.com