Another budget speech, another case of putting hope over experience

Alice Wu says people are tired of hearing financial secretaries' repeated calls to stay strong as they are hit by one crisis after another

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 3:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 3:18am

Since I obviously lead a much more boring existence than some of our legislators (well, one, in this case), internet pictures of young models aren't readily available to me. So, instead, I decided to read up on past budget speeches - which I did find readily available.

I began with then financial secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's 1997-98 budget, the first for the special administrative region. It featured an upbeat tone that has since disappeared. He called us to "have faith and confidence in ourselves. To look to what we Hong Kong people can do".

As it turned out, there wasn't much time for that, because the Asian financial crisis hit pretty soon afterwards. By our second budget, we were, as the song goes, Ridin' Out the Storm, hanging on for dear life. That brought the first recession we have experienced since we began our economic take-off in the 1960s.

And so, by the third budget, we were dipping into our reserves and tax concessions came into being. By the fourth budget, Tsang had to call it "an extraordinary period demanding extraordinary measures". And, since those early years, every budget has been peppered with calls for Hongkongers to hang on to our tenacity, perseverance, and, most importantly, our hiking boots, given the seemingly endless calls to scale new heights.

The pep talks were almost certainly necessary - we were put to some insane tests, most notably the bursting of the housing bubble that was compounded by the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. That did far more damage than the Asian financial crisis.

By the time Antony Leung Kam-chung took over in May 2001, we were in the red, people were losing their jobs and their homes, and we were forced "to address the structural problem of our public finances". The word "prosperity" was used carefully - and sparingly. Gone were the more hopeful words of optimism, though our financial chiefs tried to resuscitate that "Hong Kong Spirit" by quoting lyrics to songs such as Under the Lion Rock.

And while we huddled beneath the Lion Rock, working hard and bouncing back, we were inevitably faced with new realities: the wealth gap, the n-nothings (low-income people not receiving any government assistance), the ageing population and the tide that failed to lift all boats. In many ways, Hong Kong's confidence, especially in the case of the middle class, has been scarred since.

By the time John Tsang Chun-wah succeeded Henry Tang Ying-yen in 2007, we were looking at the global financial crisis.

Those "worst of times", as Leung said, quoting Charles Dickens, may still be too close for comfort. Maybe we are tired from scaling heights, building strength, creating opportunities, staying positive and preparing for rainy days.

It's not that we are ignoring calls for solidarity. We're certainly not resting on our laurels. Tsang and the rest of the government should also take a look at those past budgets. They'll realise we need to see real results to find any confidence in them.

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