A sweetener-free policy address is just what Hong Kong needs

Alice Wu welcomes the belated attention paid to the city's poor and disadvantaged in the policy address, with no attempt to overreach

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 3:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 3:31am

The fact that the chief executive isn't the life and soul of any party isn't news. He's not the type to dazzle, so when the time came for his second policy address, there wasn't a lot of pre-address fanfare, which was really kind of nice.

Opinion polls leading up to the address showed that public expectations were low.

That may be the most striking thing Leung Chun-ying did right with the address. Low popularity ratings can never be a blessing in disguise but Leung made expectation management work in his favour.

A non-crowd-pleaser has no need of grandstanding statements. So out went the bells and whistles of previous policy addresses, and in came the non-flashy "Support the Needy, Let Youth Flourish, Unleash Hong Kong's Potential" and its content that did not try to overreach.

However, to say that this year's policy address was inconsequential would be grossly unfair.

Despite its presentation, it carried far greater meaning than those that came before. The focus on supporting the needy, which took up the bulk of the policy address, is a first for this city.

For years, we have been outraged by how little the government has done for the poor. The so-called "N-nothing" class, the working poor and wealth disparities have been given considerable media attention for a long time. The response, in real policy terms, has been disproportionate, year after year.

Was it a lack of political will or political incentives? Lines needed to be drawn for policies to be formulated. Hong Kong's poverty line, defined for the first time last September, is needed to see clearly the size of the holes in our social safety net.

While the poverty alleviation measures in Leung's policy address are by no means complete or enough, they are significant.

After all, they represent the first attempt by the government to go beyond paying just lip service to helping the city's disadvantaged, and replace all the smoke and screen with actual dollar signs.

Tackling poverty will take more than subsidies, or consideration of how much these policies will dent the public purse. Education is key. And it will take a well-planned and -executed overhaul of our education system to provide solutions to intergenerational poverty.

Introducing a Chinese-as-a- second-language curriculum for ethnic minority students is a good start. It must serve as a constant reminder for administrations that poverty here has been institutionalised. Our education system leaves behind ethnic minorities, children with learning difficulties, and families that cannot afford to put their children into expensive programmes, because it predetermines success at too early an age and, often, on the premise of parents' economic prowess.

It's an elitist system that is becoming more archaic and inappropriate by the day.

It's too early to tell whether this policy address can, in fact, set in motion the momentum for change this city needs.

But, at the very least, it is a move away from the ritual of handing out crowd-pleasing sweeteners that are truly unsustainable - both on the public purse, and for the city's political development.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA