My Take

Carrie Lam making mountains out of molehills – except for the MPF

Issues with The Link and the MTR are simply a rallying cry for populists, but retirement fund has serious problems that must be addressed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 11:15pm

Some mountains may be levelled to make way for roads and progress. Some are there for a reason. Still others may be just molehills.

So it’s puzzling how Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor reportedly picked out “three mountains” – or difficult and long-standing problems – that need to be removed or resolved.

These are: the allegedly exploitative management of malls on public housing estates by The Link, a real estate investment vehicle; repeat MTR fare hikes; and the “offsetting” mechanism for bosses to cover workers’ severance and long-service payments under the Mandatory Provident Fund.

Three mountains: Hong Kong government eyes Link Reit, MTR fare rises and the provident fund

I can think of some real Himalayas that confront Hong Kong and create the dire conditions it faces today. But they may be just too big for this government to handle.

So for discussion’s sake, let’s grant Lam her three “mountains”.

The Link is the first and probably only real estate investment trust in Hong Kong that is worth holding on to for the long haul by investors. The Tracker Fund – an exchange-traded fund designed to provide investment results that closely correspond to the performance of the Hang Seng Index – and The Link are two of the very few creations of the post-handover government that have been of lasting benefit to the local community. They will do more for your retirement if you are an investor than your MPF. And Lam wants to undermine The Link.

The common criticism is that The Link pushes up rents, squeezes out poor tenants and makes life difficult for residents. These arguments are specious, as my fellow columnist Jake van der Kamp has shown in a recent column, so I won’t repeat it. In short, The Link is no mountain at all.

Carrie Lam’s ‘politicking’ could end up doing serious damage to our world class rail system

The MTR, though listed, has the government as its largest shareholder. The Link at least has the virtue of having been privatised – and free of the government – a decade ago. Since low-income households, and poor earners and students already have transport subsidies, the fare hike issue is more a populist rallying cry than a real social problem.

In other words, it’s a molehill.

That leaves us with the MPF. It’s only in Hong Kong that bosses are allowed to raid the pensions of workers to pay for their severance and long service. But the commercial sector is dead set against scrapping this “offsetting mechanism”.

That’s the real mountain that needs to be levelled. Will the government do it? Don’t hold your breath.