Leung Chun-ying

Fight never over for Ho Hei-wah, 'Voice of the Poor'

Social activist Ho Hei-wah wants to serve on the revised poverty panel and has high hopes that C.Y. Leung will tackle the issue seriously

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 4:22am


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As plans for the Commission on Poverty are sorted out, one man seen as the best person to represent the poor is hoping to serve on the revived panel.

Ho Hei-wah, the director of the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), has high expectations of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who marks his 100th day in office today. Ho believes Leung will listen to the commission's advice in the fight against social inequality.

Ho - who has been dubbed "the voice of the poor" - says he will rejoin the commission, which was scrapped by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in 2007, if invited by the government.

"But I have not been asked to participate so far, nor have I heard about any potential members who will join it," he says.

The government is expected to announce the commission members this month.

In August, Leung chaired a seven-member preparatory task force - of which Ho was a member - that was assigned to consult on the direction and scope of the Commission on Poverty.

The task force decided that the city should define a poverty line, which Ho said would help the government pinpoint and tackle poverty. He called it a major step forward after years of inaction.

Ho has high expectations of Leung's administration to resolve the entrenched poverty in the city, which he says was aggravated by Tsang.

Tung Chee-wah, the chief executive before Tsang, who established the commission in 2005, was a good-hearted person, Ho says, while Tsang "was a totally heartless person".

"Tsang neglected the poor for so many years. Cancelling the commission was only one example. If he had done anything at all, there would not be so many conflicts and tensions between the poor and rich in society," the veteran social activist says.

To correct the mistake, he says Leung's government should stand firm on requiring a means test for a new old-age allowance, HK$2,200 a month, for about 400,000 elderly poor. Parties from across the political spectrum say it should be waived for those over 70, as it is for so-called "fruit money".

"If it is a handout to everyone, the root of the problem will not be solved," Ho says. "Only with a means test can the government target those who are most in need and adjust the amount if it is necessary."

In the HK$1,090-a-month "fruit money" scheme, a single applicants' income is capped at HK$6,600, with an asset limit of HK$186,000. For a married couple, the income cap is HK$10,520 a month and assets are at HK$281,000.

As to whether the income and asset limits to qualify for the new allowance should be the same as for "fruit money", Ho says the limit could be relaxed.

"It is not perfect, but let's make a step forward first and at least a group of people can be helped, then we can discuss improving the system to help more," he says.

The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme should be changed because it leaves out low-income families who are ineligible because their earnings exceed the threshold, he says.

It has been almost three decades since Ho, whose father was a jade and jewellery shop owner, ditched his comfortable world to join the fight for the poor.

Ho ran away from home in his teens when his father wanted him to inherit the family business, but he wanted to study. He later worked as a labourer on a construction site and in a restaurant and kitchen to support himself and his education expenses.

The taste of working-class life allowed him to see the social injustices for many grass-roots people, which prompted him to join labour unions such as the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee and Industrial Relations Institute.

He joined Soco in 1988 and fought to help people living in slums, temporary homes and "cage homes".

"The first time I went into a cage home I was shocked," Ho said in a previous interview. "Many men were crammed into a small dark flat, and the rent per foot was equal to a luxury house. Since then I have been involved in the issue."

At Soco, he also fought for the rights of other low-income people such as cross-border wives, fishermen and other marginalised groups. He soon became known as one of Hong Kong's most dedicated social activists.

In 1997, Time magazine named him as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong.



Currently Director of the Society for Community Organisation, member of preparation task force for reviving Commission on Poverty

Previously Member of the Commission on Poverty 2007, social worker