Information is key to wise population policy vision

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 3:25am

Government inertia is never a good idea when it comes to population and planning. This has to be especially so for Hong Kong, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, society is ageing fast and the workforce is shrinking. But despite the necessity to have forward-looking policies in place to ensure smooth growth and development, our city has instead lacked resolve to deal with what would seem to be an on-rushing crisis. The decision by Singapore's leaders to tackle their similar challenges head-on is reason to spur the discussion that authorities have avoided.

Singapore's population white paper, unveiled last week, is bold in scope and vision. It seeks a 30 per cent rise in numbers over the next 17 years to 6.9 million. Central to the strategy is attracting one million young, well-educated, foreigners. Unsurprisingly, it has garnered as much criticism as approval.

Fear of such a response is perhaps one reason why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, failed to formulate a population policy. Vested interests and protectionist ways abound in our city, pitting the business community, unions and society in general against suggestions of an influx of outsiders. Yet, like Singapore, it is in that direction that a city with our challenges may have little choice other than to turn.

But creating a sustained growth model requires accurate, detailed and up-to-date population data, and on this score there are substantial holes. Authorities have no inkling how many mainlanders and foreigners live here, nor can they say with certainty what percentage of the 200,000 children born in our hospitals to mainland parents will one day return. Accurate information helps solve problems to provide better services and improve the quality of life. Where those not born in Hong Kong are concerned, it is crucial; we need to be able to properly assess manpower needs and infrastructure requirements.

Hong Kong needs a vibrant population to confidently face the future. A scheme to attract well-educated outsiders to live here is not working; just 2,392 applications have been approved since 2006. Thousands of construction workers may have to be imported so that our housing needs can be met. These are sensitive issues, but they have to be discussed. Like Singapore, we have to confront our population problems decisively. First, though, authorities have to get an accurate picture of society and its needs so that a visionary policy can be formulated.