Hong Kong should open its doors to workers from the Pearl River Delta who could commute here and solve the twin problems of a shrinking workforce and growing housing shortage over the next 30 years, says the architect of Singapore's population policy.
The suggestion by Paul Cheung, director of population planning in Singapore from 1986 to 1996, borrows from the city state's experience in supplementing its labour force with around 150,000 workers who commute daily from neighbouring Malaysia.
The proposal is feasible as the transport network between cities in the delta region will be much improved in 30 years' time.
"Importing labour is a very outdated concept, especially for Hong Kong. It should look at it as talent flow across the Pearl River Delta region," Cheung told the South China Morning Post.
"The core problem for Hong Kong is urban pressure. If the city adopts the flow concept, the loading on Hong Kong will be less," he said.
Cheung's recommendation came as the government's public consultation on formulating a population policy, which started in September, ended yesterday.
The government had suggested importing more overseas workers to replenish the labour force, which is expected to shrink from 2018.
Cheung engineered a baby boom in the 1980s by creating extra childcare places that allowed couples to have more children. As a result the fertility rate in Singapore increased from 1.43 in 1986 to 1.96 in 1988 - close to the replacement level of two.
Cheung, who worked in New York from 2004 to 2012 as director of the United Nations Statistics Division, said some workers in Manhattan commuted from the neighbouring state of Connecticut. US Census Bureau statistics show the daytime population of Manhattan is about 3 million, almost double the nighttime number of more than 1.5 million.
"There's no travel restriction between New York and Connecticut. People in Connecticut now can freely move to New York and work there and move back in the evening. The same can be true for Zhuhai and Shenzhen down the road," he said.
Noting the negative sentiment of some Hongkongers towards mainlanders, Cheung said the government could consider the Fair Consideration Framework in Singapore. This ensures that jobs paying more than HK$20,000 a month are advertised for locals and there is tightened scrutiny of companies that have a disproportionately low concentration of Singaporeans.
"The reality is that there are many qualified and talented Chinese for Hong Kong to pick and choose. The trick is how to develop a system to attract and retain them, without alienating the local population," Cheung said.
But he warned Hong Kong to take heed of a recent proposal by the Singaporean government.
"Don't open the gate too fast and too wide - be mindful of how locals react to foreign talent."
Singapore's recent plan to increase foreigners to nearly half of its population by 2030 prompted rare protests from citizens. The influx of foreign workers, making up more than a third of employees in Singapore and primarily low-skilled, also led to social conflict. A riot involving 400 foreign workers broke out in the city's Little India district in December.
Cheung said Hong Kong should also consider developing "third-age" education for the retired and significantly increasing the number of subsidised childcare centres.
"I don't get a good sense of what Hong Kong will be like 30 years down the road. There is no vision for the urban environment of Hong Kong, the liveability … as a home," he said after reading the consultation report. "It focuses only on … 'human capital' but ignores … other key issues, like pensions and elderly housing."