16 September 2019
Chief Executive Carrie Lam plans to go on a spending spree to establish harmony in society. Photo: Reuters
Chief Executive Carrie Lam plans to go on a spending spree to establish harmony in society. Photo: Reuters

Carrie Lam’s first policy address: Will her spending spree work?

Chief Executive Carrie Lam sought to deliver a message of hope and harmony in her maiden policy address on Wednesday. She concluded her speech by saying: “As long as we can achieve consensus, and capitalize on our strengths, the best of Hong Kong is yet to come!”

The public’s response to her speech was mixed. A survey conducted by Now TV through a mobile application showed that 41 percent of the respondents were satisfied with her policy address, while 59 percent said they were dissatisfied.

In seeking to heal the divisions in society, Lam presented a box of goodies not only for the low- income group, but also for the middle class, and especially the youth, who appear to be the most disaffected sector during the previous administration.

Judging by the content of her speech, it seems that Lam plans to go on a spending spree to establish harmony in the community. After all, as she herself pointed out, the government currently has a fiscal reserve in excess of HK$1 trillion. 

But the question is, is there thoughtful planning in the way she intends to spend the taxpayers’ money?

Her plan to build more subsidized housing for first-time home buyers, for example, raises the question of who will truly benefit from such an initiative: the young couples who cannot afford to have their own flats or the property developers?

With its enormous resources, the Lam administration can provide more subsidized homes for the youth, but property prices will continue to soar because of the government’s fiscal and immigration policies.

Since she took office in July, Lam has been harping on the need to adopt a new financial philosophy to allow the government to spend more to address social issues.

One of the new initiatives announced on Wednesday is her plan to provide subsidy for public transport commuters, and that covers those who ride the MTR, franchised buses, green minibuses, ferries and trams.

Around 2 million people are expected to benefit from the non-means-tested scheme. People who spend HK$400 per month on public transport will get a subsidy of 25 percent on any further travel costs, subject to a cap of HK$300.

Is that a good news for us? Sure. But some netizens bothered to calculate how much they will really get from the scheme, and it turned out that it wasn’t really much.

A commuter would only get HK$25 if they spend HK$500 on public transport each month because the government would only provide a 25 percent subsidy for the amount in excess of HK$400, which in this case is HK$100.

For people living in Tuen Mun and working on Hong Kong Island, they could get a subsidy of around HK$150 should their transport expenses for the month amount to HK$1,000.

They have to spend HK$1,600 each month on public transport to get the maximum subsidy of HK$300. Commuters who live in Discovery Bay and spend HK$80 on ferry rides to get to the urban areas would probably receive that amount.

The government did listen to the public clamor for transport subsidies after it has been taken to task for its huge earnings from the MTR business and dividends from MTR shares. The transport subsidy is a kind of transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor in the community. But it doesn’t touch on the issue of high transport fares in Hong Kong, especially of the government-owned MTR.

If the government decides to use its MTR dividends to subsidize the people’s transport expenses, why can’t it take a step further and implement unified pricing for all members of the working class just like the HK$2 fare for the elderly?

In a bid to involve the youth in community building, Lam plans to appoint more young people to the government. She aims to increase their ratio in the current-term government to 15 percent.

The government will also recruit 20 to 30 young people aspiring for a career in policy research as well as policy and project coordination to join the proposed policy innovation and coordination unit. This will allow them to gain experience in public administration and enable their voices to be heard at senior levels of the government, she said.

That is all well and good. But one cannot help but suspect that such an initiative is being done to reduce the opportunity of the opposition to recruit and train young talent in the political field.

The 2014 Occupy Movement showed so many outstanding university students who were articulate, determined and idealistic in fighting for democracy and genuine political reform.

So instead of letting them protest in the streets and later end up behind prison bars, Lam is probably thinking that it would be better to harness their talent to serve the government.

But would young people accept Lam’s offer? It is not so easy for young, idealistic people to suddenly change their political views and join a bureaucracy that is beholden to an autocratic system.

The only way to engage the cooperation of the youth is to make them believe that this government is sincerely determined to protect and promote the core values of Hong Kong and safeguard the interests of its people ahead of the wishes and dictates of Beijing.

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EJ Insight writer