GOVERNOR Chris Patten was long a leading thinker in Britain's Conservative Party, a party that has always voiced political and economic doubts about comprehensive welfare provisions. It is interesting that in a speech to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service yesterday, Mr Patten specifically addressed a question raised in the current issue of the British periodical, The Economist : Is welfare un-Asian? Separately, Mr Patten addressed the more specific question of how the Hong Kong Government should adapt to shifting demands on its growing resources. The answer to the first question is that, as Mr Patten said, it is clearly absurd to dismiss spending on community services as un-Asian. Singapore, for example, that bastion of Asian values, provides a comprehensive range of social services. While many Asian governments have tended to avoid policies that would entitle large numbers of people to benefits, welfare policies have been influenced by local circumstances and local resources: not by ideology, and certainly not by race. Mr Patten is correct to propose rigorous and regular reviews of objectives, priorities and programmes designed to help those in need. Such reviews make good sense, and should enable the Government to tailor services to needs while ensuring cost-efficiency. As Mr Patten said, it is disturbing that 13 per cent of public housing tenants own a home of their own, just as it is disturbing that there should be overcrowding in public hospitals while private rooms stand empty. However, the word 'review' is open to as many interpretations as 'welfare': Reviews can be launched in order to improve the work of government, but they can also serve as a substitute for action or as a means of defusing controversy. While Hong Kong has spent an increasing amount on social services as the territory has grown in affluence, the level and range of available housing, education, medical and social security benefits is still far from generous. Mr Patten's proposed 'social audits' are welcome insofar as they help improve the efficiency of social services spending. Such reviews should discourage extravagance and stupidity. However, Mr Patten should ensure that the accountants act as referees: no one wants them becoming players in the social services business.