'The quality of our human capital is lagging behind that of other global business and financial centres.' David Eldon Chairman HK General Chamber of Commerce I CAN UNDERSTAND Mr Eldon's phrasing from the corporate perspective, the one that the chamber of commerce naturally takes. In the corporate world you must first of all have financial capital. This is also called the liabilities side of the balance sheet and, if it is judiciously invested in the businesses represented in the assets side of the balance sheet, you have the makings of a thriving company. It all comes to nought, however, if the people you have hired in these businesses are no good at their jobs. You also need competent employees and managers who are up to the tasks they are assigned. In the corporate world this is commonly referred to as human resources or human capital, terms that effectively take out the human element while seeming to put it in. Combine properly invested financial capital and high quality human capital, and you will almost certainly have what you need to keep your shareholders happy, which is the ultimate goal of corporate enterprise. But let us apply this thinking to the doings of an entire society rather than just of a corporation. I now have a question for you. What distinguishes the human capital in this case from the shareholders it is meant to benefit? They are now the same people, are they not? The object of economic endeavour in any society is to benefit all the people of that society. Take the people of Hong Kong out of the equation and what purpose is left in any economic endeavour in Hong Kong? What does Hong Kong mean if we do not mean the people of Hong Kong? And how do you like the idea of Mr Eldon referring to you in such an offhand manner, not as a living human being but as a capital input unit, the matching pair of so many dollars of financial subscription to a company. Could we please see the day that corporate executives treat their employees as John with a family problem and Jeremy who is good at numbers while referring to shareholders as dividend and capital appreciation output payment units? I can put up with corporate talk of human capital to a point but I find it frankly demeaning when someone who has taken on a role in public service refers to the people of Hong Kong, the people he is meant to serve, as a stock of human capital to be given a quality grading by some higher authority as if they were just so many dozens of eggs. That's me you are talking of, Mr Eldon, and millions of other people just like me, and we are not your capital or anyone else's. Who put you in a position to refer to us in such patronising terms? Mr Eldon's specific reference, of course, was to education standards in Hong Kong, his complaint being that there are too few tertiary education graduates and that the standards of education are inadequate, particularly as to proficiency in English and Putonghua. I shall declare myself. I am not the world's biggest believer in higher education. I think the whole system has come to serve teachers more than to serve students and throwing money at it will only make it more that way. The fact that 42 per cent of Canada's adult population and 36 per cent of Ireland's has tertiary education, while Hong Kong's figures are much lower, tells me only that Canada and Ireland probably have unemployment problems that they have hidden with education subsidies. What they will get in return is so many hundreds of thousands of students with degrees in socialiteraryanthropoliticology or media studies (even worse) and job prospects no better than any school leaver who joined the unemployment rolls earlier. What I suspect the world needs more of just now is competent plumbers and if Mr Eldon would rather emphasise high finance, well, it is my opinion from having spent 18 years in the finance trade that the best dealers are invariably the ones who have not clouded their judgment with a university degree. Mr Eldon himself did not do so and he rose to the top at Hongkong Bank. But if he wishes to improve education standards in Hong Kong, I have one sure-fire recommendation. Make it worth the student's while. If the bank, for instance, is unhappy with the English proficiency of its tellers, then it ought to encourage greater proficiency by paying higher wages to tellers who speak fluent English. I promise magic if it were to happen. The one thing Hong Kong people are good at is responding to opportunity. They are unlikely to get it, however, if people who offer themselves for public service think in terms of humans for capital rather than capital for humans.