Hong Kong must compete on the quality of its talent and services, not quantity

Paul Yip says Hong Kong's poor showing in a global ranking of think tanks underlines the lack of commitment to raise our game in research and development, innovation and talent retention

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 9:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 9:30am

In a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania on the performance of think tanks, the results for Hong Kong were disappointing: we have the third-highest number of think tanks per person in Asia, but not a single one is rated highly internationally. However, our neighbours have scored well. For example, South Korea has five think tanks among the best in the world; the mainland and Japan about a dozen.

Hong Kong's inferior performance is related to the poor quality of our research and its low impact on society. A lack of funding and quality research staff are the main issues. Due to limited and unstable funding, it is difficult to attract and keep talented researchers. Also, the government is not receptive to suggestions from think tanks; it can be discouraging to those researchers who aspire to work for the betterment of the community.

Another problem in Hong Kong is the availability of data, kept in various government departments. The government should be more open-minded in supporting quality research by facilitating data access. The Census and Statistics Department has begun to adopt a more customer-orientated mindset; its efforts are a positive step. However, some departments and agencies are still reluctant to make data available.

To strive for a knowledgeable society, any policy should be properly evaluated and empirically supported. The government should champion evidence-based policymaking across the board. Certainly we need to respect and observe privacy concerns, but there is much room to explore how data can be made available to research without breaching privacy laws.

A recent visit to Jiangsu province revealed how the provincial government is investing heavily in research and development to provide the necessary momentum and infrastructure to move its industries - in particular, electronics and drug development - up the value chain. The government is working hard to attract and retain talent by offering preferential treatment for outstanding researchers to work and settle in Jiangsu. It provides start-up funding for research and product development.

Certainly, not every project is successful but there is enough development to put Jiangsu on the map as a leading industrial and innovation hub in China. Last year, its gross domestic product growth was 8.7 per cent, outperforming the national rate. It has also managed to improve living standards; with growth rates of 8.8 per cent and 10.6 per cent for the urban and rural areas respectively, the urban-rural income gap can gradually be narrowed.

Mainland China offers plenty of land and resources; the land area in Jiangsu given over to R&D could be a quarter of Hong Kong's size and the province is home to over 130 colleges and universities with 1.8 million students. More importantly, the local government has the commitment and ability to execute any project smoothly and effectively.

Hong Kong, with its natural resource limitations, can only compete on quality, not quantity. We can't and should not live by selling milk powder and offering substandard services to our mainland visitors to maintain our tourist industry. Instead, our survival depends on providing quality services.

Hong Kong still has some of best doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, academics and chefs in the region. But they can move elsewhere at any time and our neighbours are keen to attract them. Therefore we should value and nurture our talent.

We need to develop our younger generations; hopefully, they will become our quality workface in the future. Through meaningful engagement, they can develop a sense of ownership and contribute constructively to enhance Hong Kong's capacity to face challenges. The government's proposed "Future Fund" can't save Hong Kong; a quality workforce can.

Engagement with youths should start at an early age. Some organisations provide support in the form of life skills and career development programmes. Any investment in youth is much more than altruistic behaviour; it should be seen as a responsibility that provides much needed support to the vulnerable. Hopefully, it can bring out young people's full potential and enrich Hong Kong's human capital. With a rapidly ageing population, we need our young people to work better and smarter than their predecessors.

Hong Kong's development has been distracted by political reform of late, which has led nowhere. Neighbouring cities, meanwhile, have been transforming at lightning speed. We need to seize the opportunities afforded by being close to the mainland while at the same being different from it. We can strategically use this advantage by offering high-quality services.

Any engagement is better than confrontation for improving the relationship and rebuilding trust between the mainland and Hong Kong. It is our responsibility to better equip our young people to make Hong Kong a better place for everyone.

Political affairs come and go. However, without a quality workforce, Hong Kong's future won't be bright and we would have to live with the consequences. By the time we realise it, it could be too late.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong