Retired citizens demand more respect
Faced with a global economic meltdown that has sent markets crashing, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen decided the last thing his government needed was controversy over the old age allowance.
He announced the old age allowance - commonly known as 'fruit money' - would be raised to HK$1,000 for those aged 65 or older, with no means test.
Hong Kong has 870,000 people aged 65 or over. Currently, about 475,000 of them receive an old age allowance at a total cost this year of HK$3.9 billion.
A single person aged between 65 and 69 who is not already receiving a social security payment is entitled to HK$625 per month, provided he or she is earning less than HK$5,910, or has less than HK$169,000 in assets. The income and asset limits for a married couple are HK$9,740 and HK$254,000, respectively.
There have been calls from the community to raise the allowance to HK$1,000, and the Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong campaigned on the issue in the Legislative Council election. But the government was reluctant to budge, arguing that the increase would become a heavy financial burden in 25 years' time.
Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said in his budget speech this year that the number of elderly people would increase 2? times to 2.17 million by 2033.
Even at the current rate, funding the allowance for that many recipients would cost HK$9.7 billion annually.
'If the old age allowance were increased to HK$1,000 for each eligible person, by 2033 expenditure would surge to HK$14 billion,' he said, adding that it was a heavy financial burden.
In his policy address, the chief executive said it was reasonable to raise the allowance to HK$1,000, but it should be paid to those in genuine need after a means test. He said details of the test would be decided in a review to be completed this year.
However, Mr Tsang failed to take into account public opinion.
Many elderly people consider fruit money to be a token of appreciation for their lifelong contribution to the community, and consider a means test insulting.
'We would rather the government not increase the old age allowance if it has difficulties under the current poor economic environment. But to impose a means test is insulting,' said Tam Shuk-kit, 72, a member of St James' Settlement's elderly services centre, a social welfare group.
'[The old age allowance] is too meagre to be a living allowance; its main function must be one which shows respect for the elderly, so there should not be a means test,' added Fung Miu-ha, 68, a member of St James' Settlement Retired Persons' Association.
University of Hong Kong professor of social work Nelson Chow Wing-sun noted a 1973 report issued by a Social Welfare Department working party that stated, 'If the elderly had an independent income of their own ... they would be better accepted in the family, and in some case better treated'.
Professor Chow said the cost of raising the allowance would not be as great as the government contended. 'Statistics have shown the amount of recipients of social security has levelled off over the past five to six years, which indicated suggestions future taxpayers would bear a huge burden caring for the elderly population were overstated,' Professor Chow said.
In the face of public opinion, Mr Tsang announced the means test review would be shelved for the time being, and would likely take the least contentious solution of raising the allowance to HK$1,000 for all recipients, while retaining the means test for those aged between 65 and 69.
This is the edited version of an article which appeared in the SCMP on October 29