Hong Kong Budget 2018-2019

Cash handouts or infrastructure? Hong Kong politicians disagree on how next budget can help elderly

Some argue massive surplus should go towards long-term investment, while others say low-income residents would benefit from having the money now

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 11:25pm

Hong Kong lawmakers across the political spectrum have urged the government to spend its massive surplus wisely in its coming budget blueprint by investing heavily in medical and elderly care infrastructure, which they say has failed the city’s seniors.

But the Civic Party’s Dr Kwok Ka-ki and Federation of Trade Unions’ Alice Mak Mei-kuen were split on whether Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po should offer cash handouts to Hongkongers when he delivers his annual budget next Wednesday.

The administration has faced mounting pressure to spend the public money wisely after it emerged that Hong Kong is set to reap a massive surplus of about HK$160 billion (US$20.5 billion) this year, much larger than the original estimate of HK$16.3 billion.

Kwok, speaking on an RTHK programme on Monday, said Chan should make full use of the surplus to strengthen the city’s medical system in view of the fast-ageing population. Almost one in every three Hongkongers will be aged 65 or above by 2041.

“The government has not offered senior residents a free yearly body check [in the past], and that does not make sense,” Kwok said, adding that this could be done via a HK$1,000 voucher that would allow elderly people to get annual check-ups at public or private clinics. “Why doesn’t it adopt such a simple measure?”

He said the development of primary care in Hong Kong had not improved over the past decade, meaning residents ended up in hospital when their problems could have been solved at the community level.

Dr Vivian Wong Taam Chi-woon, former chief executive of the Hospital Authority and Queen Mary Hospital, phoned in to the radio programme to highlight the need for the administration to incorporate Chinese medicine into the provision of primary care. The government should consider adopting this approach at its new primary care pilot centre in Kwai Tsing, she said.

Budget surplus can help free our elderly poor from financial prison in Hong Kong

Wong also echoed Kwok’s idea of free check-ups, saying it would help lower the demand for hospital care.

Mak, on the other hand, called on the government to increase the quota for medical and nursing students in the face of the ageing population and to consider giving dental vouchers to elderly residents.

She said the administration, with its tremendous fiscal surplus, should boost the supply of subsidised quality nursing care and improve the existing community care service for the elderly.

Last week, the city’s finance chief dropped the strongest hint yet that he might not offer one-off cash handouts – an approach adopted by the Macau government – in his budget blueprint, saying the government preferred more targeted relief measures.

While Mak noted the importance of long-term planning, she said the government should not rule out cash handouts this year as it recorded a huge surplus against the backdrop of a soaring economy.

“Some long-term policies, such as elderly care, take time, and they will not spend all the money. Under such circumstances and with such [a large] surplus, it would be better to return the money to the market than keep it in the government’s pocket, so people have money to spend,” she said.

“We have heard some low-income residents saying … they would prefer the government to allow them to spend the money on their own.”

But Kwok argued otherwise, saying the money should be spent on long-term investment, such as building hospitals and nursing homes.