SCMP Friday, February 16, 2001

Our fiscal supremos can learn from the Averages

No wonder the Government has a problem admitting the growing gap between rich and poor. Officials aren't sure what poverty is. Perhaps that's not surprising when, like Secretary for Housing Dominic Wong Shing-wah, you're on a $2.2 million annual salary.
Civil servants on that kind of financial package can hardly be blamed if they lose touch with harsher realities. That's why the Government decided to cut the income level for the Home Ownership Scheme from $31,000 to $25,000. (They toyed with bringing it down to $22,000).
Housing officials calculated that - leaving aside mortgage payments - a family of four can meet all other expenses from $15,000. With two growing kids to feed and clothe, that means a grassroots couple is expected to buy food, pay rates, utilities, phone bills, travelling expenses, buy school textbooks, and pay a score of other regular overheads - plus unforeseen emergencies - out of an amount policy secretaries would look on as loose change.
Doesn't it make you wonder why it took so long to find a Financial Secretary, when Mr and Mrs Average - with their financial wizardry - could have been plucked from any housing estate to do the job for a fraction of the price?
Proud new owners of Home Ownership Scheme flats in Tsz Wan Shan in Kowloon don't have to worry about any defects that arise in the property as they settle in. Since Christmas, they have been overwhelmed with offers of help from legislators, all eager to establish their credentials among new constituents.
First came Democratic Party stalwart Fred Li Wah-ming, together with independent member Tsang "The Bull" Kin-shing, closely followed by Chan Kam-lam of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Rival posters telling householders where to go for assistance sit cheek by jowl in the lobby, while party faithful outside address everyone coming and going into the building with the aid of microphones, urging them to bring all their troubles to the party office.
So much for Tung Chee-hwa's vision to elevate Hong Kong from a regional financial hub to a world city like New York or London. The Chief Executive obviously has his work cut out if the reaction of top banks in the American south is any guide.
Violinist Robert McDuffie discovered this to his dismay recently when he approached banks in Atlanta, Georgia, with a bright idea. Sometime beforehand, McDuffie fell in love with a rare 18th-century violin made by master craftsman Guarneri Del Gesu. The trouble was, it cost a whopping US$3.5 million (about HK$27 million).
McDuffie came up with an ingenious plan to get around this. He would convince a major bank to buy the instrument as an investment, then he would play it at concerts in the world's top cities to promote the bank's name. Well, it was worth a try.
In an interview on National Public Radio in the United States, Mr McDuffie explained how he went from bank to bank without success, until one banker told him bluntly: "It's great you want to play in places like Hong Kong, but we don't care too much about Hong Kong here, so good luck."
He eventually sold the idea to private investors who have no interest in promotion. They plan to sell it at a later date.
Slight blooper in last week's column when we referred to the troubles at the Vocational Training Council after the Director of Audit's criticism about bad management leading to a loss of $160 million in lost revenue.
We reported that the executive director, Professor Lee Ngok, had renewed the contract of the chairman, Yeung Kai-yin. Whereas, of course, it was the other way 'round.
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