Education and training the key to improving quality of life and combating poverty in Hong Kong

Paul Yip says the next chief executive must be committed to bringing the best out of our population

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 7:01am

The Hong Kong government recorded a nearly HK$70 billion surplus in the 2016-17 financial year. At the same time there is a significant number of workers among the population who find it hard to make ends meet. More than HK$200 billion has been handed out as “sweeteners” over the past decade in one-time and ad hoc measures to mitigate poverty. But has it been effective? I am afraid not.

Our financial reserves have increased to a record high of HK$900 billion, which is equal to about two years of government expenditure. Meanwhile discontent in the community is building. Our gross domestic product has grown 46 per cent in the last 10 years but median household incomes have only increased 12 per cent. The salaries of workers have also not risen in line with economic growth as a whole, meaning many things have become unaffordable, especially housing.

Research by my department at the University of Hong Kong has shown that the top 20 per cent of earners in the city have enjoyed greater economic prosperity while the bottom 30 per cent have not seen any significant improvements in their incomes.

Whoever becomes the city’s next chief executive must help improve quality of life for low-income earners. Essential elements to this are education and skills training. Hong Kong can learn something from Singapore by investing in these areas in order to stay competitive. The Lion City works hard to find the best talent to become teachers so they can effectively nurture the next generation. The government offers a good salary and job prospects for teachers. It also invests in university research and development programmes to improve their performance, and subsequently the country’s higher learning institutions have outperformed ours in global rankings. The city has also made provisions for supporting their citizens in undertaking lifelong education and training.

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Singapore has also recruited talented doctors, nurses, engineers, social workers and other professionals from overseas to manage shortages, and has deployed their resources effectively and efficiently in strategic investments to the benefit of the country’s overall development. In Hong Kong, we are in a deadlock in terms of bringing in more overseas professionals to deal with our acute shortfalls, especially in the health care sector.

Singapore has a very low fertility rate – as has Hong Kong – at 1.2 children per woman. Despite generous pronatalist programmes in Singapore, that fertility rate has not improved much, but they have still managed to maintain a sustainable workforce for their economic development through foreign talent. Hong Kong has wasted much time on endless debates instead of action. Foreign workers should be allowed in to offset shortages brought with seasonal fluctuations, and this does not need to mean compromising the rights of the local workforce.

And if we attract talent, we also need to be able to retain it. Our net migration rate goes against the best interests of Hong Kong – we are losing talent to neighbouring countries, and have resorted to relying on 53,000 migrants from the mainland daily to keep our city young. What we lack is an integrated plan to bring the best out of our population.

We need a caring chief executive with a passion for making Hong Kong a truly global and competitive city of which we can all be proud.

Paul Yip is the chair professor of population health at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong