23 July 2019
Outgoing development secretary Eric Ma Siu-cheung says the government will closely monitor the trend of developers building micro flats and impose conditions on minimum flat size if necessary. Photo: HKEJ
Outgoing development secretary Eric Ma Siu-cheung says the government will closely monitor the trend of developers building micro flats and impose conditions on minimum flat size if necessary. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong needs new thinking

Something outgoing development secretary Eric Ma Siu-cheung said last week not only infuriated me, it also exposed how out of sync some of our senior officials are with ordinary Hongkongers. It is this disconnect with the people that is partly to blame for the seismic split in our society as we mark the 20th anniversary of reunification.

The head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Wang Guangya was exactly right when he said earlier this week that the incoming cabinet needs to have new thinking even though many of the faces will be leftovers from outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s team.

Mainland leaders used to tell Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa that those who govern Hong Kong must think like the people they are governing. That advice has not been fully embraced by local officials although Leung has tried to think like the grassroots.

What Ma said in essence was that some Hong Kong people want to live in micro flats. That’s why the government won’t impose rules that say flats cannot be smaller than a certain size. Ma is, of course, out of his mind if he thinks people actually prefer to live in tiny flats. Let me bring him back to his senses. Yes, some single people may prefer tiny flats. It’s easier to manage. But most others have no choice. It’s all they can afford. And yet these flats don’t come cheap.

Ask Hong Kong people if they want to pay HK$5 million to live in a micro flat? The answer will be educational for Ma. These flats are barely twice the size of a prison cell. Some better-kept zoos have cages for monkeys that are larger than the flats Hong Kong’s developers are now building.

A car park in Sai Ying Pun measuring 188 square feet was recently sold for HK$5.18 million. Something is terribly wrong with Hong Kong’s housing market when car parks are bigger than the 160 square foot flats some developers are building yet both cost about the same. But don’t expect our policymakers to understand that.

They are overpaid, have generous perks and chauffeur-driven cars, live in large flats and many spend half their time buying and selling property. Just look at the declared assets of our officials and you’ll know what I mean.

Ma told the media last week the government will closely monitor the trend of developers building micro flats and impose conditions on minimum flat size if necessary. If necessary? If it’s still not necessary when 160 square foot flats have price tags of over HK$4 million, when will it be necessary?

Hong Kong’s home prices are the world’s least affordable. Rents are insane. I recently looked at flats in Wanchai and Causeway Bay so small that there isn’t even space for a computer desk in the main room or a small rice cooker in the open kitchen. Yet landlords were demanding nearly $30,000 a month.

As home prices skyrocket, salaries for ordinary Hong Kong people have remained virtually stagnant. The wealth gap has widened further. We now have the widest wealth gap after New York City. The waiting time for public housing is over four years. Buying home ownership flats have become like a Mark Six lottery where numbers are drawn for applicants.

Our officials like to use the excuse that home prices are skyrocketing in places like New York, London, and Vancouver too. They conveniently leave out the fact that those places have suburbs with affordable prices. Hong Kong no longer has suburbs. Property developers like to brand every new development, even those in the New Territories or former low-class areas such as Tai Kok Tsui, as luxury developments with multi-million dollar price tags.

Affordable housing is what Hongkongers care most about, much more than political reforms. Every public opinion survey has shown that. Yet we have spent the last five years under the rule of Leung fighting over political reforms at the expense of the issue people care most about.

As opposition politicians, environmentalists, and government officials squabble over land policies, developers have been given a free hand to build ever smaller flats at ever higher prices. Every time the government imposes extra measures to cool the market, the developers counter with cheap mortgages and other incentives. Sometimes I wonder if they care more about the overall good of Hong Kong or their own pockets.

If Ma wants to believe there is no need to impose conditions on minimum size flats, that is his business. He will no longer be development secretary in a few days anyway. But I believe those paying millions now to buy micro flats so they can get on the housing ladder are making a big mistake.

When they get married and start a family, they will need larger flats. But there is no guarantee micro flats will have a huge demand in the future secondary market. When the Hong Kong housing bubble bursts, and I am sure it will, the micro flats will have little value because larger flats will be cheaper. Those who paid millions to buy them now will have to sell them for a fraction of the price.

Our widening wealth gap, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and the government’s disconnect with the people have turned Hong Kong into a virtual powder keg with a lit fuse. Occupy Central was the first explosion. The Mong Kok riot was the second. Will there be a third?

Not necessarily, if we listen to Wang Guangya’s words of new thinking. We have entered a new era with the 20th anniversary of reunification. What better time than now to embrace new thinking? The opposition camp needs new thinking too instead of always opposing everything the government does.

It is ridiculous for some opposition legislators to say they will need to think about whether or not to accept an invitation to attend a dinner for President Xi Jinping. Surely, that is old thinking. We have a great opportunity now to turn the page of old thinking to a page of new thinking with the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Let’s not squander it.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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