Speech – Resumption of Second Reading – Appropriation Bill 2013 (Abraham Shek)

Deputy President, in this city, where rationalism is playing second fiddle to populism, we need to learn the art of distinguishing between political illusions and economic realities. A case in point, the Policy Address points to the direction of illusionary utopia path, but the Budget brings us back to economic reality.

Deputy President, the Budget delivered by the Financial Secretary in late February poured cold water over Hong Kong people’s heads, jolted them from their dreams and wakened them up with nightmare. For too long, the people have been spell-bound by the words of Government leaders who vowed to tackle long-existing problems and build a better future for all. Change was promised. Changes have not come and yet to come. After the Policy Address and now the Budget, it is painfully clear that the only change has been in rhetoric, rather than in actions.

No one can be unmoved by the plight of 1.2 million people struggling to make a living in our city of affluence, and the inconvenient truth that after a life-time of hard work, the only heirloom that many fathers can pass on to their sons is poverty. The Hong Kong spirit of everyone getting a fair shot and each succeeding by their own hands has been shaken. We have a mission to restore the belief that in Hong Kong, if you are determined and work hard, then you can reach for the stars, whoever you are. Just look around here, little as we may be in here, where we are all in the stars because of our hard work and good past government policies.

I believe education and housing are two key areas that we should work on, yet I felt the Budget did not offer enough in these two areas. Were policies inadequate because the Government could not find the resources to foot the bill? Much criticism has been levelled against the Financial Secretary in this Chamber but no one can fault him for his ability to come up with good figures for Hong Kong. But Budget Forecast is an art and not a science, particularly in the present global economic environment. The Financial Secretary has done a remarkable job to the extent that he has given us realistic policies reflecting his personal values and bourgeois conservatism. The facts and figures speak for themselves: the sixth consecutive fiscal surplus; a total surplus, accumulated since 2007 when he first took office, of over $300 billion; the tremendous growth of the Exchange Fund, from $1,200 billion in 2007 to $2,800 billion this year; and the doubling of the fiscal reserve from $374 billion to $734 billion over the same period.

These figures show us that the Government has the resources to spend on much-needed policies for the well-being of Hong Kong people, and I say this bearing in mind that the Financial Secretary has a duty to balance the books and keep government expenditure in line with revenue. The problem is that the money has been inappropriately spent. The solution is that those resources should be directed towards long-term and effective measures that can combat poverty.

The Financial Secretary has spent $33 billion this year on “one-off” relief measures, but these so-called “one-off” relief measures are not “one-off” at all ― they are more of the same from past years.

We have had reductions in salary taxes for at least six years in a row; extra payments for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, Old Age Allowance and Disability Allowance for four consecutive years and electricity subsidies for three consecutive years.

Judged on their own merits, Deputy President, there is nothing wrong with these measures. I remember they were well-received in the first and second years they were announced. I thought then that these were short-term measures to relieve temporary difficulties. However, when it is more of the same for the third, fourth, fifth year, and so on, these temporary short-term measures have become permanent features. I fear that even the Financial Secretary is starting to succumb to the populist mood, as some of his fellow colleagues have unfortunately done. Most importantly, we have to ask the question: Is repeating the same “one-off” measures the answer to resolving our long-term problems? The answer is no, and the reason is simple. You cannot keep on applying temporary fix-ups and think that problems of a deep-seated nature with deep-seated causes will just go away. You may relieve the symptoms for a time, but they will keep on returning because the problems have not been cured but have grown bigger. People in poverty may enjoy one or two months of relief because of the hand-outs, but afterwards, they are back to square one. Hong Kong people need no handouts, and what we need is the opportunity to pursue our dreams in a living and working environment of level playing fields, where hard work would be appropriately rewarded. The Government’s duty is to create wealth and to ensure fair distribution to its ruled through caring policies.

Poverty alleviation requires an emphatic and sustained effort in policies and recurrent spending. The Government should each year be rolling out more public housing, better labour training programmes, bigger health subsidies for the elderly and extra subsidized university places, just to motion a few needed measures. Yet, the Government has continually avoided additional recurrent expenditure like the H7N9, arguing that it could be unsustainable in the long run.

Is it unsustainable? Look at our so-called “one-off” relief measures. Over the past seven fiscal years, these have cost us a total of $213 billion, dwarfing even the $15 billion that was put into the Community Care Fund this year. If we had invested that $213 billion, we could have spent $10.7 billion every year on long-term anti-poverty measures, based on a 5% annual interest income. The money for seven years of “one-off” measures that led to temporary relief at best, could have been used to fund long-term programmes that would have brought decisive changes to the lives of the people who created the wealth.

So it is not a case of having an empty wallet, but rather a case of misspending. The problem of misspending is not confined to the “one-off” measures. There were some other areas in the Budget where I felt the measures announced could have been shelved and the money devoted towards more appropriate and effective policies.

One such area is education, which is recognized as one of the strongest weapons against poverty, especially inter-generational poverty, by offering ladders for everyone to climb up and make a future for themselves. Yet the current view is that you have to pay to get onto a better ladder, as our education system has been criticized for favouring the well-off and perpetuating, and even widening, the rich-poor divide. I believe the Government can alleviate this injustice by helping the less well-off to meet their children’s education needs.
A very basic measure in education that the Government should have implemented and for which we have been striving endlessly in this Council, is to increase the number of subsidized university places. Currently, there are many young people who studied hard to qualify for university, but see their dreams dashed and talents wasted because there are too few subsidized degree places and too many expensive self-funded programmes which they could ill afford. With a degree, young people can aspire to more rewarding careers and bring real
changes to their lives. With more people with higher education, the needs of a knowledge economy can be satisfied. So this could not only benefit youngsters, but the economy as well. But again, this suggestion has fallen on deaf ears. We have suggested many measures, and people might ask where we are to find the resources for these education measures? Again, it is not a question of not having enough money, Deputy President, but of how the Government spends it.

Look at where the Government has actually spent in education. The Government has proposed to inject an additional $480 million into the HKSAR Government Scholarship Fund to set up scholarships for local students to take degree courses or teacher training programmes in prestigious overseas universities. It is a well-intentioned policy but a misplaced one. How many beneficiaries will there be each year for this $480 million, Deputy President? Twenty. Who will benefit? Outstanding students, who most probably already have a bright future ahead of them without requiring Government help. When did it ever become the principle and policy of this Government to give further support to the few at the top and ignore the ordinary majority? Deputy President, teaching profession is a noble career. A good teacher teaches from the heart. A teacher cannot teach by serving time to fill up a funding gap vis-à-vis a scholarship. This is a sad case of forcing people to be teachers who will have no love for teaching.

On the issue of housing, Deputy President, the Government has not done a good job either. Again, the correct principle should be devoting our public resources towards helping those most in need. In this case, it is the people who do not have a proper roof over their heads who most need our help and attention. Public rental housing, as I have always stressed, is the best hope for the people for a decent living environment. However, it seems that under the Government’s policy, they will be facing an even longer wait before their hopes could be realized. There are currently over 220 000 people on the Waiting List, compared with Donald’s era of 110 000, and the message they receive from the Government is that there will be 79 000 public rental housing flats available within five years for them to fight over, because there will not be enough to go around. The Government might claim that 79 000 flats, compared to Mr Donald TSANG’s time of 75 000 flats, already marks an improvement, but that is playing a conjuring trick with the public, because the number of people on the Waiting List has increased and will increase further, and the waiting time will get ever longer.

The Government must spend more resources and implement measures to increase public housing and Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) flats, for example, by speeding up the process of how land uses can be changed to free more land for housing. As I have said time over time again in this Council, we should think out of the box, and have the MTR Corporation and the Urban Renewal Authority to participate in building more HOS and affordable housing. This went dead to the Government’s deaf ears. However, the Government instead tasks its best brains with coming up with measures such as the Buyer’s Stamp Duty (BSD) and the Special Stamp Duty (SSD) to interfere in the private housing market. A case in point, since the implementation of the SSD in November 2010 and for two years, flat prices have increased by 35% and property transaction has gone down by 40%. Are they successful regarding the SSD? The answer is “no”. But the Government thinks it is. And then further, they have not learnt from this exercise. They even strengthened and lengthened the SSD and even brought about the BSD. The answer is very simple, and I hope I am wrong, Deputy President, that is, we will see prices going up further and property transaction going even further down.

Lastly, Deputy President, as my time is coming to an end, I would like to say a few words to the Financial Secretary in absentia: Do not ask Hong Kong people to settle for less; we can and should aim for more. While he was talking about building an ideal society and reminding us to be pragmatic, the Financial Secretary in absentia, borrowed a quote from the former United States President Theodore ROOSEVELT: “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.” My response is: We share your belief and we are aiming for nothing more than getting the disadvantaged back on their feet. But if the Financial Secretary insists on aiming for the stars, well, I quote again from the same person: “Believe you can and you are halfway there.” Hong Kong people can have faith that we can, as well as the determination (The buzzer sounded) that we must, put an end to the miserable sight of poverty.


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