Last-minute move forces government to withdraw controversial proposal The Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong made a last-minute U-turn yesterday and opposed a government proposal to cut funding for higher education institutes. As a result, officials were forced to withdraw the proposed budget from Legco minutes before its scheduled vote. The party's rivals were quick to denounce the move as political opportunism. Analysts said it reflected the new leadership's desire to improve the DAB's image following its dismal showing in the recent district council elections. The DAB, which previously supported the government's plan for a 10 per cent cut in recurrent grants to higher education institutes, yesterday told the government minutes ahead of a Legco finance committee meeting that it would not support the $10.6 billion package to fund the eight institutes in the 2004-05 academic year. Minutes after the committee considered the item, Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung withdrew the proposal, saying that he needed to discuss the matter with Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen. His response was seen as a departure from previous hardline views over funding cuts. 'Since the situation now is different, the economy has rebounded and unemployment improved, we have to reconsider the level of the cut and there is room for discussion,' Professor Li said, pledging to submit a new proposal 'as soon as possible' after consulting university heads. Democrat Cheung Man-kwong said it was obvious why Professor Li had a change of heart, referring to the fact that DAB legislators had spoken to him soon after the Democrats had begun lobbying other legislators against the proposal. 'It was clear that Li was left with no choice but to withdraw the proposal, as he couldn't get the votes.' Tam Yiu-chung, DAB vice-chairman, admitted the party was being careful with sensitive issues after its poor showing in last month's elections. But another vice-chairman, Ip Kwok-him, said the party only 'realised' the proposal could affect the quality of education in Hong Kong during a party meeting at noon. Originally, he had said, the party had seen it as a routine cut in staffing costs. James Tien Pei-chun, leader of the Liberal Party, said: 'If the DAB is now trying to out-do the Democrats on everything, it would lead to big trouble.' Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at City University, said political opportunism would continue until next year's Legco polls as the DAB wanted to improve its image.