Wednesday, February 20, 2013

HK should look to S'pore for tips on population policy

Feb 19, 2013

Singapore's efforts to reverse the trend of its greying, shrinking workforce hold lessons for Hong Kong which faces similar challenges, says Professor Paul Yip.

SINGAPORE and Hong Kong share similar population characteristics: a rapidly ageing population and very low fertility rates. Both worry about the negative impact of a shrinking workforce with an ageing society.

However, the way the two governments are responding to the challenges is very different. Singapore has been trying to divert the course of its population development to a desirable direction whereas Hong Kong's last administration just wasted time so that society is ill-prepared. Right now, Hong Kong is still wrestling with the problem of milk powder supplies and parallel traders, and has yet to develop an integrated approach to enable the population to grow stronger and better.

The Singapore government recently released a White Paper on a sustainable population. It gives clear goals and directions with measurable, specific tasks to make Singapore a liveable, lively city. Its officials understand the importance of the family as the basic block to build a healthy and harmonious society. They have fostered a pro-family culture by investing resources with the support of community stakeholders, so that starting and raising a family is easier for the younger generation than it is in Hong Kong.

The Parenthood Priority Scheme gives priority allocation for public housing to eligible married couples with children. There are measures to help working couples balance work and family commitments. Fathers will get one week of government-paid paternity leave, compared to the three days in Hong Kong that the business sector is still somewhat reluctant to accept. Singapore also provides six days of paid child-care leave per year per parent with a child under the age of seven.

The Singaporean method has been criticised as unhelpful, given that its fertility rate still remains low. But it would probably be even lower without these measures. In fact, the number of children per married woman in Singapore - two - is higher than Hong Kong's 1.6.

The Singapore government also realises the importance of building a strong, high-quality workforce. It has pledged that, by 2030, two-thirds of Singaporean workers will hold professional, managerial, executive or technical positions, up from half at present. Young people will have more opportunities and choices; the aim is to increase the percentage of young people with publicly funded university entry places each year from the current 27 per cent to 40 per cent in 2020. The figure is only 18 per cent in Hong Kong, and the recent policy address made no mention of any increase.

Singapore is also strategic in identifying potential migrants who can contribute to the economy. It provides scholarships to promising students from other countries. It has also diversified its industry, developing high-value-added emerging sectors, for example, in biomedicine, advanced electronics and green energy. Hong Kong remains complacent with its high growth in gross domestic product, milking an unsustainable property market and a very unbalanced tourist industry, with the majority of visitors coming from the mainland.

Growth remains limited even in the established industries, such as the financial and service sectors, whereas Singapore has moved fast to change. Officials from the Lion City have remained alert, whereas complacency or inertia can be found in many sectors of the Hong Kong government. I have no doubt that Singapore will meet its targets. Hong Kong, meanwhile, wastes precious time on filibustering in the legislature.

Singapore has the vision and commitment to make its population sustainable. But this vision is not without its problems; the influx of immigrants has already caused concern and bringing in yet more, as the White Paper proposes, would certainly arouse public anger. The ruling party's loss of vote share in the 2011 General Election was a wake-up call for the government to pay more attention to the well-being of the community.

Development is often measured by economic indicators. Yet studies have shown that wealth does not necessarily equate to happiness, especially when it is not shared by everyone. Hong Kong may enjoy a higher GDP than Singapore, but are Hong Kongers doing better? I doubt it.

Of course, adopting Singapore-style measures in Hong Kong would be naive; some simply do not apply. But it is important that the Hong Kong government has the vision and commitment to take the lead and work with the community to tackle population challenges.

There is so much "protectionism" in every corner of Hong Kong. Business communities are reluctant to introduce more pro-family policies, as they worry about the cost. Unionists are reluctant to accept foreign workers to mitigate labour shortages in some industries, leading to delays in completing projects. Students, fearing competition, complain of too many foreign students in the universities. Mistrust between legislators and government officials affects the efficiency of the administrative system. Simply put, Hong Kong is not moving forward.

Singapore is taking Hong Kong's graduates; two of my former doctoral students are now working in Singapore. One is married to a Singaporean and will have a baby soon. She reckons Singapore is more receptive to migrant Putonghua speakers. The living environment is much better in terms of space and air quality. Of course, Hong Kong has its own attractions, but these need to be nurtured.

Population policy is an important issue. But it was very much neglected during the seven years of Mr Donald Tsang's administration.

Let's hope the present government takes the matter seriously and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, along with other policy secretaries, receives the support needed to make Hong Kong sustainable and liveable.

Community understanding and support are absolutely essential. We need focused and effective action and we need it now. Attitudes need to change because, at the end of the day, population policy involves and affects everyone.

The writer is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong. This piece was published in South China Morning Post on Feb 7.

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