New panel open to radical ideas to solve Hong Kong's population worries

Members of a new steering committee tasked with solving HK's population problems say all ideas, even controversial ones, are on the table

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 4:59am

It was deemed good news when the government said in July women in Hong Kong lived longer than anywhere else in the world, with an average age of 86.7, surpassing their Japanese counterparts for the first time. The figure for men is 80.5 years.

However, it is not so good for those who are growing older. Hong Kong faces a massive headache in the future with its ageing population and declining birth rate.

The government's determination to resolve these problems rarely makes headlines, but a newly appointed group of government advisers is planning to change that. And it will suggest some radical solutions, not always considered acceptable to mainstream thinkers.

The Steering Committee on Population Policy, appointed last month, says it is eager to discuss suggestions that have been regarded as taboo inside the administration, including importing labour, postponing the retirement age and making school classes smaller. And it will consider whether to accept mainland women wishing to give birth in the city.

The challenges, they say, require going beyond demographic statistics to ensure sufficient well-qualified people are on hand to support the aged, but to also establish a family-friendly environment and one where people recognise the worth of older people.

Every day we see examples of the challenges elderly people face in Hong Kong. Just think about how many times you have seen an elderly person struggling to make it to the other side of the road before the light changes.

There are other everyday scenarios that raise questions. Why are investors taking risks by quietly changing land use to reap profit from families looking for a niche for their loved ones? How many of your friends, especially those who work, are willing to have a baby? Have you noticed your building's older security guard has been replaced by a younger one?

"With the foreseeable problems, we just can't afford to rule out any possible solutions just to defend some traditional thinking," said the chief executive of International Social Service, Stephen Yau How-boa. "For example, importing labour does not necessarily mean these people would take our jobs."

Yau said importing labour could be a solution to the shortage of personal care workers or nurses needed to look after the increasing number of elderly people. The lack of such workers has become more serious after the introduction of the minimum wage two years ago.

"Younger people do not want these jobs, as they would rather opt for clerical work," Yau said. "Workers who were employed doing this work have also left for jobs that are less labour intensive, because of the guarantee of a minimum wage."

Another urgent problem plaguing the elderly service sector is the serious lack of nursing homes. According to government statistics as of June, the supply of both public and private nursing homes equipped with medical staff can only accommodate 3,853 residents, while Hong Kong has about 270,000 people aged over 80. About 5,000 elderly people die each year while waiting for a bed in a nursing home.

Yau said securing land to build nursing homes should be a priority high on the committee's agenda, but it went beyond the responsibility of the Social Welfare Department, and needed efforts from the Planning and Lands departments.

The establishment of the steering committee, headed by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, would appear to be a perfect opportunity to settle cross-departmental issues.

But, much to the members' surprise, it does not include officials from the Development Bureau or the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, which fall under the leadership of Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah.

This has sparked fears that the committee, due to meet for the first time next month, could be handicapped by the lack of involvement of those bureaus, as its work will involve land and planning issues.

"The workforce is an important aspect of the population. It's a key part of economic development as well. Our discussion would be more comprehensive if we could involve the two bureaus," said Christine Fang Meng-sang, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service.

This is the third attempt by the government since 2006 to address population issues. Six years ago the Council for Sustainable Development launched a public consultation to gauge views on how to tackle the problems. The council eventually gave 24 wide-ranging recommendations, including measures to improve the quality of life and working environment, to boost the declining fertility rate, address labour shortages and a skills mismatch, and to make timely adaptations to the reality of the ageing population.

The council, chaired by the environment chief, was previously chaired by then-chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan. But few of the council's recommendations, such as examining the sustainability of retirement schemes and planning hospital and health-care services for the ageing population, were followed up.

In 2007 Hui's successor Henry Tang Ying-yen led a newly formed steering committee comprised only of officials. The closed-door meetings held by the committee over the past five years ultimately produced an 82-page progress report this May offering 10 recommendations.

The report offered few measures to address manpower issues and quality of life for the elderly, but put a special focus on measures dealing with the more than 175,500 babies born in Hong Kong to mainland parents.

Now the government wants to start all over again - recruiting community leaders from social services, human resources, retailing and academia.

But Fang urged the government to enlarge the committee membership to include officials responsible for land and economic development. "We have to reprioritise our land resources. While our older people are waiting an average of three years to get into a nursing home, the government has reserved hundreds of hectares for small house developments."

She did not oppose the import of labour, but said the government should do its best to retain older people in the workforce. The labour force participation rate of those aged 65 or above has halved in the past 20 years, from 14.1 per cent in 1991 to 7 per cent.

Fang said apprenticeships would allow older skilled workers to stay in their familiar working environment while providing training to the younger generation. "Banks overseas often hire retired tellers to help in an emergency," she said.

With the city's low birth rate, the number of one-person households has increased by 26 per cent in the past 10 years and this trend is expected to continue. "Society should be prepared to take up the responsibility of taking care of these people when they get old," Fang said.

But she emphasised that babies born in Hong Kong to mainland parents should not be regarded as a source to replenish the ageing population. The "zero quota" for births to mainlanders set by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying should stay.

"Children must grow up with their families. Our policy shouldn't encourage mainland parents to leave their children alone in the city for education," she said. "For those who have obtained the right to reside, the government should track precisely when they will return to the city."

Professor Hau Kit-tai, an educational psychology specialist at Chinese University, echoed Fang's view that the city should not rely on babies from mainlanders to replenish the workforce unless both parents and the babies are proved to be able to support themselves. "Otherwise, the government would have to address their housing needs as well." But he said the government should ensure there was some flexibility in resources, such as schools, to accommodate the sudden return of those children.

Paul Yip Siu-fai, a demographer at the University of Hong Kong, does not agree. He said babies of mainland parents should be integrated into the city as early as possible to ensure they are well-educated from the beginning and to avoid creating a "minority" that may lead to social problems.

He called on the government to consider devising a quota system that would allow mainland parents to gain the right of abode if they fulfilled certain educational and professional requirements. Studies show 60 per cent of those parents had received post-secondary education, and are mostly professionals and managers.

Hau quoted international research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that indicated small-class education may not be the best solution to enhance the quality of education, compared to reducing a teacher's classes and increasing their salary.

On retaining talent, Hau advised the government to develop industries that required the skills of PhD students. "Most students leave after obtaining a degree in Hong Kong," he said. "The money has already been spent on them, so we should think about how to retain them so they can contribute to society."

However the president of the Institute of Human Resources Management, Fancis Mok Gar-lon, said it was hard for students to plan a career in the city. "We don't know what our government's vision is. Students cannot make a suitable decision without a clear future," he said. The government should specify which special industries would be developed in new districts set aside in the New Territories, Mok said.

Mok said education should address the serious skills mismatch in the job market. "We have companies facing succession crises, while others offer little mobility for young people."

Professor Shen Jianfa, a demographer at Chinese University, said the government should plan now and execute later to avoid controversy. "The measures we are discussing will trigger opposition if the public is told that they will be implemented today," he said. "The earlier they discuss them, the fewer conflicts will be involved. For example, the public will be more receptive if the government proposes postponing the retirement age in the next five to 10 years."

The city has no official retirement age, except for most civil servants, who have to retire at 60. But people can only draw on their retirement fund, the Mandatory Provident Fund, when they are 65, highlighting the inconsistency of policies.

Shen said the Mandatory Provident Fund should be reviewed. "The amount of contributions from individuals and companies should be increased from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the monthly income, similar to the level required in the United Kingdom and Canada."