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Thursday, October 12, 2017, 11:07
Lam’s maiden Policy Address deals with key issues
By Ho Lok-sang
Thursday, October 12, 2017, 11:07 By Ho Lok-sang

Ho Lok-sang explains that the CE’s plans have helped address most of his major concerns — particularly in the areas of boosting the city’s competitiveness and helping the underprivileged

Last week I wrote that on the economic front, at least in the short term, Hong Kong is doing relatively well, though boosting Hong Kong’s long-term competitiveness is still a priority. I pleaded for more attention to Hong Kong’s underprivileged and especially more resources for healthcare and for the handicapped. For the hot area of housing, I wrote that the priority should be on creating more accommodation that is reasonably safe to live in than on increasing homeownership. I pleaded for more investment to improve infrastructure safety. To a large degree my major concerns were addressed in Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s maiden Policy Address. In the following I shall lay out some of my remaining concerns.

In regard to housing, there is no shortage of innovative, bold initiatives to increase the supply of transitional housing. Her proposals even include exploring the wholesale conversion of industrial buildings into transitional housing with a waiver of the land premium; and working with non-profit organizations in constructing pre-fabricated modular housing on idle sites. This fully shows that she will look at all options and not be constrained by existing laws and regulations — the bottom line is just that they should be reasonably safe. All this is great. My concern is with the conditions of sale for the “Starter Homes” scheme and the 4,000 new public rental housing (PRH) units in Fo Tan, Sha Tin which would be converted into Green Form Subsidised Home Ownership Pilot Scheme (GSH) units for sale in late 2018. Since a unit sold is a unit lost to the Housing Authority, I would prefer that these units will continue to serve the needs of those target households that the Housing Authority intends to serve. In order to ease investment demand for these units, the traditional approach is to ban resales until after the household has occupied the unit for a certain number of years. Since it costs at least HK$1.2 million to replace each PRH unit lost — not including the land cost, I would strongly urge that those who buy GSH units must not be allowed to hold any real estate property in Hong Kong, in person or through a shell company. In addition I would require that these units can be resold only to those who are eligible to buy these units in the first place.

Lam is boosting Hong Kong’s funding for research, spearheading Hong Kong’s drive toward a smart city, ... and continuing in the search for more land to meet Hong Kong’s needs

I applaud Lam’s initiatives to boost funding for the Hospital Authority and particularly to provide funding for patients with uncommon diseases to purchase expensive but effective drugs. Enhancing prevention and avoiding costly healthcare through strengthening our primary healthcare services is also a matter of priority, in view of rapid population aging in the coming years. But I am still wary about the launch of the Voluntary Health Insurance Scheme in 2018, which could lead to further development of the private healthcare sector at the expense of the public healthcare sector. I am particularly worried about the loss of experienced medical staff to private hospitals. This will likely take over the “easier” patients while leaving costly patients with complications to the public sector.

I also applaud the government’s pledge of funds to increase dormitory places among our universities. This is really necessary, particularly because the demographic trends means that we may need to import more foreign students from overseas. Having more foreign students in Hong Kong will actually give Hong Kong students exposure to other cultures and enrich their learning experience. A larger student number may also allow a greater diversity of courses and programs for our students to choose. This will go hand in hand with the Belt and Road Initiative of our country.

I am very pleased with the proposed implementation in mid-2018 of the higher Old Age Living Allowance, which was first announced in Leung Chun-ying’s last Policy Address. It will provide a monthly allowance of HK$3,435 to eligible elderly people. However, renaming the present Low-income Working Family Allowance to “Working Family Allowance” to benefit more working households would blur the policy intent of the policy. I have been proposing a policy of graduated wage subsidy to Hong Kong’s workers so that higher-wage workers will enjoy a smaller and smaller per-hour subsidy up till, say, a wage of HK$50 per hour. (“Improve the Low-Income Working Family Allowance”, Jan 21, 2014, China Daily Hong Kong Edition). I agree to extend benefits to more families, but still maintain that the focus of the scheme should still be on helping the low-income working families.  

Finally, Lam is boosting Hong Kong’s funding for research, spearheading Hong Kong’s drive toward a smart city, giving the necessary funding for our Financial Services Development Council, reducing Hong Kong’s profit tax rates for small and medium enterprises, and continuing in the search for more land to meet Hong Kong’s needs. There are other initiatives on the education front which are also highly desirable. This, together with the new Youth Development Commission chaired by the chief secretary for administration, which would commence work in the first half of 2018, promises to turn Hong Kong into a land of opportunity for our younger generation.

The author is dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education.

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