Saturday, 23 March 2013

Tan Jee Say: Hong Kong & Singapore : similar population issues but different approaches to solve them

23rd March 2013

Hong Kong & Singapore : similar population issues but different approaches to solve them


Like Singapore, Hong Kong faces the twin problems of an ageing population and a low fertility rate. But unilke Singapore, Hong Kong does not set population targets to deal with the issues. In fact, it doesn't really have an economic or industrial policy, so its 'talent scheme' is not used up as the administrators do not know what criteria to use to give priority. Achieving economic growth is not an issue as China could easily boost tourist numbers by approving more cities than the current ten to issue permits to their residents to visit HK as independent travellers. HK's priority is to improve basic infrastructure first particularly housing and transport and to do more to push the economic frontier further outwards by integrating more deeply with southern China.

This difference in policy approach came out strongly in my discussion with Professor Lui Tai Lok, Head of Sociology Department at Hong Kong University. We were joined in the discussion by his two colleagues Prof James Wang and Ng Cho Nam from the Department of Geography which teaches the subject of urban population. They explained to me the phenomenon of mainland Chinese women coming over to HK to deliver babies which helped boost the birth rate, but nevertheless HK still wanted to rein in the numbers. I asked how HK deals with jobs or industries that local people shun. I was told there are few such jobs or industries left; shipyards and factories had long left HK and two years ago, the minimum wage was introduced to restrain demand for low end workers and it has succeeded in forcing the pace of automation. For example,  dish washers have moved up to become waiters and waitresses, compelling firms to automate dish washing.

Healthcare system

I was glad to have met the three professors who were helpful and candid in explaining HK's experiences in dealing with its population problems. I was grateful to an old Malaysian friend Prof Chan Li Chong for arranging this discussion. I was recently reconnected with him after nearly 40 years when we first met in London where we were active in the activities of FUEMSSO (Federation of UK and Eire Malaysian and Singapore Students Organisations). He is currently the medical professor in HKU. I asked him about the HK healthcare system. He was full of praise for it. He proudly described HK as a capitalist city with a highly socialist healthcare service. Healthcare is virtually free ("just pay US$10 a day and treatment is free") and standards of care are excellent. Chris Patten, the last Governopr of HK, improved it by leaps and bounds. There were conspiracy theories that the British wanted to use up HK's surplus reserves before departing the territory in 1997 and to leave behind an expensive healthcare system that the subsequent administration would not be able to sustain. They were proven wrong. Today, 16 years later, the heathcare system remains vibrant and provides an excellent free and universal service to all members of the public. How I wish we could have a similar service in Singapore so that the healthcare cost concerns of Singaporeans would be put to rest. Perhaps Prof Chan could do Singaporeans a great favour by persuading his old friend and Singapore Prime Minister to adopt a similar healthcare system in Singapore. Prof Chan knew the PM well from their undergraduate days together at Trinity College Cambridge.

Later in the afternoon, I had tea with George Yeo. It was our first meeting since I joined opposition politics two years ago. We chatted like old friends. He asked me to convey his best wishes to our mutual friend and his former grassroots leader Dr Ang Yong Guan. George now spends his time in HK and travels frequently to China for the Kerry group. He seemed to enjoy his new role and responsibilities. I urged him to return to public service. He smiled. It was a relaxed conversation. I then walked the short distance from Island Shangri La Hotel to Asia Society to attend a lecture by Prof Daniel Freeman on "The Stressed Sex : Man, Woman and Mental Health". I now know and have a lot more things to talk with Yong Guan when I return to Singapore.

The next day, I attended lunch at Jardine Penthouse. It was hosted by Giles White, General Counsel of the Jardine Group, for special guest Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of University College Oxford. We talked on a wide range of subjects including of course, the rise of Asia and China and the implications for the world.

Prof Chan Li Chong and TJS standing beside the statue of Dr Sun Yat Sen 
who was a medical graduate of HKU.

With Prof Lui Tai Lok in his office at the Department of Sociology HKU.

With George Yeo in the lobby lounge of Island Shangri La Hotel on 20 March 2013.

With Prof Daniel Freeman, guest speaker on "The Stressed Sex : 
Man, Woman and Mental Health" at Asia Society.

Lunch at the Jardine Penthouse. L-R : Sir Ivor Crewe, Giles White and TJS, 21 March 2013.
* Jee Say was a Presidential candidate in the 2011 Presidential Election. The article first appeared on his facebook

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