25 October 2016
The private security guard industry has become a multibillion-dollar business in Hong Kong in recent years. Photo: HKEJ
The private security guard industry has become a multibillion-dollar business in Hong Kong in recent years. Photo: HKEJ

Are we really safer with more security guards?

In Hong Kong, being a private security guard is a pretty unique occupation.

Back in the early days of the colonial period, private security guards, who were mainly Indians and Nepalese, were already entrusted with special private policing powers due to the inadequate number of policemen in the territory.

The Watchmen Ordinance came into effect in 1964, stipulating that private security guards were not only duty-bound to guard private properties but also to prevent crimes and maintain public order.

After the ordinance was amended in 1996, security guards are simply given extra powers that turn them into something amounting to “parapolice”.

The 1980s saw a rapid growth in the private security guard business as hundreds of private and public housing estates were completed one after the other, creating a huge demand for private security guards.

Hong Kong and Singapore have a similar size of population, yet as far as the proportion of private security guards to police officers is concerned we are way ahead of them.

In Hong Kong there are four private security guards to every policeman, as compared to only 2.5 to one in Singapore. Ironically, Singapore is ranked higher than us among the world’s safest cities.

Nowadays, private security guards in Hong Kong mainly come from three sources: new immigrants, the lowly-educated and retired or discharged law enforcement officers.

The threshold for becoming a private security guard in Hong Kong is in fact rather low: all it requires is a total of 16 hours’ training and you can get a license, as compared to 26 hours required by the Singaporean authorities, 28 hours by the British government, and 30 hours by the Irish authorities.

That begs the question: are private security guards in Hong Kong trained and prepared well enough to handle their jobs, given our increasingly complicated and politicized social environment?

According to a recent study, the growth outlook for the private security guard industry in our city over the next decade or so is pretty promising as dozens of new private housing estates are due to be completed.

It is estimated that this year total spending on hiring private security guards in the city will reach HK$14 billion, with the total number of security guards hitting 140,000.

It occurred to me: could the rapid growth of our private security guard industry be part of Beijing’s secret plot to create a “police state” in Hong Kong?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 2.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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