Something the financial secretary said last week made me chuckle. It wasn't anything to do with his humour: there wasn't any in his lengthy budget speech, which he read, head bowed, in that monotonous drone so typical of our bureaucrats. Maybe John Tsang Chun-wah didn't look his listeners in the eye because he had nothing to say that would even come close to being boldly imaginative.
What made me chuckle was his explanation of why the government bends over backwards to help Hong Kong's business sector. He said a business sector that prospers through government help would have the social responsibility to help others prosper, too.
He didn't say which part of the business sector is now helping others prosper. Is it the part that warned it would fire as many as 100,000 workers if the government dared set the minimum wage at HK$5,000 a month? Or the part that regularly dupes hard-pressed families with fake supermarket sales? Maybe he was referring to the part that, last week, further jacked up flat prices, putting even more pressure on struggling home-buyers, right after a land auction fetched a sky-high HK$3.37 billion.
After watching Tsang speak, I was convinced more than ever that he just doesn't get it. He lives in a dream world where, if the government helps the rich get richer, they will be nice enough to trickle some of their money down.
The late American president Ronald Reagan lived in that dream world, too. It didn't happen then and it's not happening now. If money was trickling down, Hong Kong wouldn't have the widest rich-poor gap in the developed world. Just look at how fiercely our major business organisations are opposing a minimum-wage law. And at how our super-rich property developers - who operate with minimal government interference - are squeezing every last cent out of struggling families with deceitful sales tactics. You could say money is actually trickling up.
Tsang's solution to narrowing Hong Kong's wealth gap sounded like an old record in the era of the DVD. He talked of government handouts in the short term, improving education in the medium term and strengthening the economy in the long term.
Haven't I heard that somewhere before? It must have been those old records by him and his predecessors. The thousands of people who can only afford to live in caged bed spaces must have heard it before, too. They must be wondering how much longer they must wait before all this promised wealth starts falling from heaven.
Tsang's short-term fix of handing out money came with the warning that this cannot go on forever. When will it stop? Next year? Will struggling families then be forced to suffer until the people are educated in the medium term? Or when the economy is strengthened in the long term? The cage dwellers, long past the education phase of their lives, must now be wondering if they'll still be around for the promised long-term economic miracle.
Our leaders have allowed injustices to burrow so deep into the system that they have become a feature of our society. Yet they now lack the guts to right the wrongs. They shoot down ideas different from theirs. Anyone who dares advocate a fairer distribution of wealth is labelled socialist, or worse, communist. I am not saying we should unfairly tax the rich. But it makes no sense that the HSBC chief, who makes about HK$13 million a year, should be taxed at the same percentage rate as his juniors who make far less.
In his budget handouts, Tsang gave money to people who didn't need it and not enough to those who did. He waived the property rates of homeowners for a year but gave public housing tenants just two months' free rent. He gave taxpayers - among the wealthiest in our society - a rebate of up to HK$6,000 but welfare recipients got just one extra month of money. Businesses won't have to pay registration fees for a year but needy children will get just HJK$1,300 a year for internet access. The cage-dwellers, who got nothing, must be scratching their heads.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster