SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Crunch time, Mr Tung

In advance of your Policy Address tomorrow, may I say this: we will stand behind you, Mr Tung, if you promise to lead in a fashion that Hong Kong deserves.
To lead in a fashion that Hong Kong deserves, we ask you first to consciously assume responsibility instead of acting as if leadership was forced upon you. Do not tell us what we cannot expect the Government to do for us, instead tell us what the Government expects to do for us. Then you may tell us we will have to manage the rest on our own, and we can discuss whether this is fair.
We ask you to take the people into your confidence, as indeed we deserve. Tell us about what you think the situation is, what the Government is considering doing for us, and then you may tell us to give you our views on whether this would meet our needs. For example, you must disclose to us fully how and where you think Hong Kong's economy will be hit, and how badly and why. With the Government's technical backup at your command, this should not be difficult to do. Give us confidence by showing us that you and your senior officials have a firm grasp of how things are going, and that we are in good hands. Do not just tell us to have confidence in the Government or in Hong Kong. Show us a good reason to be confident.
We know that much of the economic situation we are in is due to external factors beyond Hong Kong's control. And we appreciate the Government cannot reverse the trend or even do much to stimulate the economy in the present situation. But you must have thought about what little the Government can do, and you must tell us that this will be done.
The Government is certainly in a strong position to give relief. Do not repeat any more that we have to be prudent with the reserves. Just tell us how much, in your estimate, we can afford to take from our reserves for the many in the community who need a boost to help them soldier through even more difficult years ahead. Tell us what we can afford, and tell us what you see as the priorities. If resources cannot stretch to everyone, we shall understand.
We will be listening carefully to the concrete measures you propose, not the packaging in which they come. High on the list of relief must be the immediate creation of jobs which will directly benefit those who are prepared to work, not just funds for retraining for jobs which do not exist. Together with the creation of jobs there must be real measures to protect job security by strengthening the law regarding employment. If you cannot prevent businesses from closing or trimming down, you can at least ensure that those who are holding down their jobs will get a fair deal.
Without job security people will not feel safe about spending what money they have. As long as there is no job security and no steady supply of employment opportunities, no sensible person will allow themselves to be saddled with a long mortgage. So it must be clear to you that consumer spending, the property market and property prices are not things the Government can jack up, but by providing jobs and making them secure you can help.
The yoke of "negative equity" sits heavily on many, draining them of the will to hope and filling them with bitterness. You must not repeat yet again that you feel sorry for them but will do nothing to help for all the best reasons in the world. Nobody expects the Government to bail out everybody, not even to give relief to everyone. But a government who takes their plight seriously will make an effort to differentiate, to put a figure on how much to draw from public funds for the purpose of giving relief and how to fairly distribute the limited funds available. There is nothing new in doing that. There is a consensus that only those who live in the property should be considered. There are those who point to the high interest rate they continue to pay while mortgage rates are falling as the main cause for bitterness. There are many forms of relief proposed. If you reject them all, then qualify your objection and come up with your own proposal.
There are other targets for relief, particularly those most vulnerable because they have the least cushion against hardship: the elderly and the chronically ill, and families with young children. Hard times for Hong Kong cannot be made an excuse to cut assistance to them.
You must have regard for the new poor who, being the middle class and mostly professional, are suffering from the shock of finding themselves suddenly unemployed. Many professionals have never known what it is like to have no job and to accumulate debt. As you have repeatedly told us, Hong Kong is in the transition to a knowledge-based economy, you must tell us now the long-term prospect we can look forward to so that our professionals can pick themselves up again.
Tell us how the Government will manage, by policy and allocation of resources, this transition. Show us you have considered thoroughly what will replace feverish property speculation as the main drive of Hong Kong's economic activities.
Tell us now whether you admit that the days of high income from land auction and massive property transactions as a major source of public revenue are gone forever, and if so tell us what will fill the vacuum this creates. Tell us what the Government will do to help usher in a knowledge-based economy.
We do not ask you to lead as a hero. As you have reminded us frequently, Hong Kong's fundamentals are good. Tell us how you mean to protect and not interfere with these fundamentals. First of all: our being part of China. As you have told us not to depend on the Government but on ourselves, tell us how, in your plans, Hong Kong will be working with the mainland while depending not on the mainland but on ourselves. Not so many years ago Hong Kong used to be more advanced than the mainland. Explain how we have managed to fall behind and what you can do to help us catch up again.
Surely in many ways we are still ahead of the mainland: our free economy; our rule of law; our civil liberties; our free flow of information; our pluralism; our sound banking and monetary system and regulatory system; our constant contact with the international community; and despite setbacks, the general affluence and sophistication of our people. All of these have taken a dent, one way or another, under your stewardship. Tell us how you will make up for them, now that we need our traditional strengths more than ever to face the future.
And finally, it takes two to tango, Mr Tung.
You have repeatedly asked for unity. You cannot ask the community to be united while excluding those whom you dislike and disagree with. Much of Hong Kong's systems can only work when the person leading is non-partisan or at least tries not to be obviously partisan. In short, Mr Tung, we will stand behind you if you will stand up for all of us.
Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a legislator representing the legal profession.