Hong Kong society needs a social ‘trampoline’ in the style of Singapore

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 12:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 7:20pm

Back in 2015, when Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s deputy prime minister, was asked whether the city had a “social safety net”, he replied that they had a “trampoline” instead.

And in response to David Dodwell’s article (“The stifling of Hong Kong’s once unstoppable aspirations”, January 20), I fully agree that a key challenge that Hong Kong faces today is that of declining social mobility.

Stagnating household income growth and escalating home prices, along with dwindling opportunities, have diminished hopes, especially amongst the youth, of creating a decent life for themselves in Hong Kong.

Looking ahead, in thinking about our mobility policy, it’s helpful to borrow a page from Singapore’s trampoline system. The beauty of this system is that it consists of both a safety net to protect against life’s calamities, as well as springs which are opportunities that lift people upwards.

A safety net acts as societal insurance to protect the vulnerable against misfortunes dealt by external forces. Singapore’s welfare policies focus on building cumulative long-term assets that cushion shocks while creating an orientation to the future. Edusave, for instance, is topped up by government subsidies and parents’ contributions that build education funding for each child from primary to university education.

In Hong Kong, while welfare policies like basic child and elderly allowances have increased in recent years, many are conceived as stop-gap temporary measures that should be reoriented to focus on long-term asset accumulation.

While nets serve as insurance, it’s the springs in a trampoline that create mobility, while active policies and ecosystems can create opportunities for inclusive and diversified economic growth. Singapore has done this through creating multiple education pathways and diversifying its economy away from professional services to biosciences and electronics.

Most of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product today is still heavily reliant on services. With future opportunities from Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative or Pearl River Delta integration, we should actively leverage strengths in our institutions and services while also creating new economic engines by investing more in R&D and entrepreneurship. This should go beyond just allocating capital for start-up investments, to building networks and hubs to facilitate knowledge exchange and talent development.

Much of our policy debate in recent years has focused almost entirely on political development. But as we continue to aspire for political reform in Hong Kong, let’s complement that with policies that focus on improving upward mobility as well.

Alexander Chan, Beijing