The people of Hong Kong have celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Monkey this week eagerly, happily and hopefully. But their enthusiasm is tinged with uncertainty. The new year must be better than the Year of the Goat - mustn't it? Growing optimism has given public festivities more zest. The upbeat mood was evident among the huge crowd which flocked to the New Year's Parade on Thursday and those who marvelled at the fireworks last night. The atmosphere contrasts with the mood last year - when the Iraqi war, Article 23 and our economic woes combined to create a sombre outlook. But if our overall state of mind was gloomy and uncertain, our lives - individually and collectively - were about to get much worse. Within weeks, the Sars outbreak had taken hold. The memory of that painful time makes everyone glad the Year of the Goat is over. One reason for the feel-better mood is the speed of our revival after Sars. Much is due to the robust character and spirit of our people. The monkey is renowned for being a survivor, but Hong Kong people have already shown that quality. However, Hong Kong has only just embarked on the road to recovery. So the times will be testing. The fortune stick drawn on Hong Kong's behalf at the Che Kung Temple yesterday struck an aptly cautious note. It was not the 'most unlucky' stick picked last year; rather it pointed to our fortunes as middling. It may not be far off the mark. The economic outlook is heartening. Deflation appears to have been beaten. The stock market has bounced back, new jobs are being created and the slump in property prices at last is abating. There is much to feel optimistic about. But influences beyond our control may yet frustrate us. We must hope that the US economy fares well. We can take some comfort from the knowledge that this is an election year in America: economic managers, from the president down, will be trying to avoid any shocks to the economy. But the spiralling US budget deficit remains a worry. Closer to home, as our cross-border ties grow, the performance of the mainland's economy takes on even greater significance. The growth of 9.1 per cent recorded last year is a source of both hope and concern. The threat posed by overheating in certain sectors requires us to exercise some caution as we look ahead. And the cases of Sars in Guangdong, as well as the outbreak of bird flu in Asia, remind us that the danger posed by infectious diseases remains real. We have learned lessons from our misfortunes; protective measures have spared us, at least so far, from avian flu. But we must not be complacent. The next few weeks will tell if Sars is to return - and then, if we can stop an outbreak. Preparing for the future means we must reform the outdated health system. The new Centre for Health Protection provides an opportunity - it should be developed as one of the world's leading sources of expertise in, and research into, infectious diseases. We hope it does not become just another level of bureaucracy, of the kind which hindered our efforts to combat Sars. The Year of the Monkey promises to be a lively one politically. Legislative Council elections are to take place in September and the delicate consultation process for political reform continues. We trust that the long-term well-being of our city will be uppermost in the minds of the candidates. If so, they might then resist the temptation to win popularity through short-sighted political opportunism. EXCHANGE OF OPINIONS It remains unclear whether the central government has reached a settled position on constitutional change. Beijing may well be waiting to see how events in Taiwan unfold, with the presidential election and controversial 'peace referendum' to take place in March. Hong Kong's chance for democratic development will be frozen, if not destroyed, should a re-elected Chen Shui-bian embark upon a pro-independence agenda. Whatever the outcome of the election, we wish for better relations across the strait. The two mainland legal experts who visited recently expressed conservative views on political reform. Our pro-democracy advocates, nonetheless, stuck to their guns. It is encouraging that the exchange of views was rational, measured and thoughtful. If the trip by the experts was intended as a test for Hong Kong, it is one which - maybe - we have passed. As the economy improves we hope the Tung administration can turn its attention to broader issues. Foremost is making Hong Kong cleaner and healthier. A better environment would be a priceless advantage. It should also think about how to give cleaner and greener public spaces, on the waterfront and throughout the city. Along with all Hong Kong people, we welcome the Year of the Monkey: the city is due for a change in fortune. But fortune means nothing without human spirit, and human effort. Everyone hopes, and almost believes, this will be a better year. It can be but - as ever - Hong Kong will have to earn its success.