Limits to greed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 August, 2010, 12:00am

Last week it was reported that the Real Estate Developers Association has hired international public relations firm Ogilvy to conduct a 'public perception audit' later this year. It will interview over 60 industry organisations, government departments, lawmakers, non-governmental groups and up to 500 property buyers. The poll is designed to gauge public views on the property sector.

To be honest, there is no need to conduct such an expensive survey. Any member of the community could provide a detailed 'report' on property developers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, since the handover, there has been a surge of public scepticism and hostility towards property developers. This is not only bad for the super-rich property tycoons, it will also be detrimental to Hong Kong's stability and prosperity, as well as long-term development.

The root cause is income disparity. Hong Kong's income inequality is rising, and there seem to be fewer opportunities for young people. That means the so-called post-80s and post-90s generations will be stuck on the bottom rung of the social ladder, fuelling further public discontent and class conflict.

Since 1997, we have experienced two financial crises, but our economy continues to power ahead. During this turbulent period, our gross domestic product has increased by more than 40 per cent, but the median income has dropped. Last year, the median household income for Hong Kong was HK$17,500 a month, compared with around HK$20,000 in 1996 and 1997. This shows that the majority of the population has been unable to reap the benefits of the economic success, polarising society.

Besides the property market, other essential parts of our everyday life - such as public utilities, telecommunications and public transport - are controlled by a handful of conglomerates owned by powerful property developers.

The Hong Kong spirit that once created countless miracles and propelled the hard-working lower class through hardship seems to have been lost. Today, no matter how hard people work, most will never be able to afford to buy a home. Steep rents are also stifling entrepreneurship, making it difficult for small business start-ups.

The harsh reality is that high-paying jobs are scarce and the majority of the workforce toil long hours just to keep the tycoons rich.

Even the middle class is unable to attain a better quality of life. Since the government has stopped the sale of subsidised public housing under the Home Ownership Scheme, potential buyers have no choice but to go to the private sector. And, to make things worse, our business environment not only allows property cartels to jack up prices, it also gives them a free rein in the marketplace, which has effectively encouraged widespread abuse of sales and transaction tactics. No wonder there is growing disquiet.

Being a free market, monopolies should not exist here. But, if anything, the opposite is true. The powerful property developers have cornered the market on various products and the provision of essential services to protect their interests. A supermarket duopoly that controls retail prices, telecommunications companies' underhand sales tactics and excessive price increases in public utilities are all examples of monopolistic practice.

The most disturbing thing is property developers using 'political agents' in the Legislative Council to protect their vested interests. A small circle of functional constituency lawmakers often act against the public's best interests. Their deeds include opposition to a minimum wage and their insistence on retaining the functional seats. All this goes against the basic concept of social justice and equality.

To improve their image, property developers must first clean up their act by being more charitable. Then they must set a limit on greed; for example, by giving up their monopolies on 'smaller' businesses such as public transport.

They must temper their desire to be everything and everywhere, and put the public good first.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator