High time for a Hongkongers-first policy

Zuraidah Ibrahim says local officials wringing their hands over people’s discontent with ‘mainlandisation’ would do better to start addressing their grievances – first by meeting their practical needs in housing and jobs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2016, 12:00pm

Imagine seeing your city invaded by outsiders whose accent grates on you because it sounds so alien. After arriving at a certain quality of life, imagine suddenly facing neighbours who talk too loudly and think nothing of cutting queues.

Your child spends all her time on tuition and schoolwork, but is still beaten by a foreign kid who didn’t know a word of English when he arrived. And his parent seems to be beating you to the best jobs. You feel like a second-class citizen in your own city.

Hong Kong? No, that’s Singapore.

Such were the prevailing sentiments among Singaporeans in the late 2000s. The government, with its eyes on economic growth, had opened the doors widely to immigrants, mainly from China but also from South Asia and elsewhere. As a result, 40 per cent of the population came to be made up of non-citizens – one of the highest proportions in the world.

Immigration was the No 1 issue in the 2011 general election and the ruling party fared worse than in any other post-independence poll.

READ MORE: As Singapore prepares for election, immigration remains key issue

Singaporeans’ grievances had been aired before, but had been brushed aside by the technocrats in government. When the unhappiness registered at the ballot box, it could not be ignored. Faced with the prospect of losing its dominance, the government made adjustments to its policies.

Four years later, in the 2015 general election, anger over immigration had subsided. A new opposition party, the Singaporeans First party, painted itself in localist colours, but performed abysmally at the polls.

Balancing the macro benefits of openness with the micro insecurities of residents is a challenge faced by developed societies everywhere, and it is a problem Hong Kong knows all too well.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong has some inherent disadvantages in its search for a viable balance. First, as an autonomous but not sovereign territory, it does not have hard borders over which its government has total control. Second, without democratic elections, Hongkongers lack the ultimate peaceful means of reminding policymakers who’s boss.

But nothing should prevent the authorities from doing more than they have to address local grievances – other than what now seems to be a lack of courage and imagination for bold ideas.

Singapore’s government did not appease localist elements by closing its borders. It tinkered with policies to address the practical effects of immigration on the lives of Singaporeans. The biggest improvement was in public housing. The supply of new flats was ramped up, tackling the long queues and high prices that caused despair to young Singaporeans.

Singaporeans were also assured in meaningful ways that they mattered more than the newcomers. They were given a clear and unequivocal advantage in accessing public goods, from subsidised housing to education to health care. It became more difficult for permanent residents to acquire public housing in the resale market, more difficult to get into public schools and hospitals.

READ MORE: Ruling party’s resounding win in Singapore elections reflects the success of its political model

READ MORE: Full coverage of the Mong Kok riot

Other measures included ensuring that firms demonstrate no preference for foreigners when it came to offering jobs – they must advertise to Singaporeans first before extending openings to others.

Businesses complain that the government has gone populist, and that they are finding it harder to recruit the manpower they need for growth. But the government seems to have learnt that it cannot apply cold economic logic at the cost of undermining people’s trust.

There is no avoiding the sad truth that the young are losing faith in Hong Kong’s direction, which would spell doom for the city

The authorities in Hong Kong will have to work at least as hard to find ways to address residents’ unhappiness. Three aspects of the problem here are particularly troubling.

One is how disenchantment on the ground is being used as an excuse for physical intimidation and violence. This is nothing like the Occupy movement’s peaceful civil disobedience, which won admirers near and far. One can only hope that those who want positive change will keep intolerance and violence to the extreme fringe where it belongs.

Second, there is no avoiding the sad truth that the young are losing faith in Hong Kong’s direction, which would spell doom for the city. Former police commissioner Tang Kin-shing described it as the “unchecked frustration” of young people over economic and political problems.

This paper reported last week the rise of localist sentiments on campuses. That the movement sprang from the ashes of Occupy suggests that not a single step towards reconciliation has taken place.

Third, the rise of localism, as shown by the respectable vote share Edward Leung Tin-kei earned in the recent New Territories East by-election, hints of a running theme of alienation from the current political formula being offered by the two traditional blocs. This should force the two sides to reconsider what it is they are offering that can reach out to young people.

It is high time for Hong Kong to take a serious, hard look at who is being left behind. Without compromising its essence as an open economy, it needs more vital elements of a Hongkongers-first approach to maintain residents’ faith in the future. If you cannot meet their political aspirations, at least deliver on their practical needs. Start with housing. Start with jobs. But, first, have the courage to start the conversation with the young.

Zuraidah Ibrahim is chief news editor. Twitter: @zuibrahim