Hongkongers could learn from fierce rival Singapore's experience of using imported labour and reclaimed land to boost economic growth, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said yesterday.
Tsang risked controversy with the remarks, made on his official blog, after sharp opposition from unionists to the idea of simplifying labour imports to tackle a manpower shortage, and a negative response to reclamation outside Victoria Harbour.
The financial chief said Hongkongers should take note of the fact Singapore's gross domestic product per capita had grown by an average of 6 per cent for the years from 2003 to 2012, beating the economic performance of its fellow "Asian tigers", Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.
"Over the past decade, Singapore has imported massive amounts of talent … It now has over 1.2 million foreign workers, accounting for more than a third of its working population," Tsang wrote. "She has also created almost 30 square kilometres of additional land by reclamation.
"Hongkongers may not necessarily buy the growth model of Singapore and we certainly can not just copy these policies. However, I believe everyone in Hong Kong has noticed that we are facing shortages of both manpower and land," he said. He called on Hongkongers to support the administration's efforts in these two areas.
In October, the government's population policy steering committee outraged labour groups by suggesting that a more flexible system for importing workers could meet shortages in areas such as construction and care for elderly people.
Tsang's comments came on the day more than 100 people marched from Chater Garden in Central to government headquarters in Admiralty to oppose labour imports and encourage the government to implement family-friendly policies that would free up more women to join the workforce.
Labour Party chairman and lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan accused the government of taking a short cut by looking to bring in foreign labour instead of helping locals go to work.
Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, a member of the steering committee, said some industries faced real labour shortages. But noting the concerns about imports competing with low-skilled local workers, Yip urged the government to take careful steps to avoid the exploitation of workers.
"Labour unions have a point, but they should also consider the potential benefits for local workers," Yip said, suggesting some locals could train the new recruits.
The government has touted five sites near the shoreline for reclamation as it looks to build land supply. But a government-commissioned report last month found negative public reactions to four of them. The idea of artificial islands, including a commercial "metropolis" off Lantau, has had a warmer reception.