[SCMP Column] Projects for the people

February 11, 2017

Seven years have passed since Donald Tsang (remember him?) unveiled in his 2010 Policy Address “Ten Mega-Infrastructure Projects” for Hong Kong. He was lambasted for throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at iconic projects that seemed more to please Hong Kong’s business aristocracy than to meet the needs of a community still reeling from the 2008 crash. At the time, I argued that the then-Chief Executive would have been better attuned to local needs by proposing “Ten Projects for the People”.

Of course, most of my suggestions were studiously ignored, but as we sit mulling CY Leung’s last 2017 Policy Address, and await our next Budget, I thought it would be fun to glimpse back at those 10 mega-infrastructure projects, and revisit the case for my cherished “Projects for the People”.

The first shock on reviewing Donald’s project list was to see just how glacially these plans have moved. Among the six transport-related plans, the South Island Line is at last open (though it was scheduled to begin operations in 2015). The Shatin-Central Link is not expected to be finished until 2021. The High Speed Rail link to Guangzhou may begin operation late in 2018 if we are lucky – against an original opening date targeted for 2015. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge should open in 2018, against an original target of 2016. And the bridge to Tuen Mun from the Airport – linked to the Zhuhai bridge – is inevitably also delayed. The fast train to Shenzhen airport has been abandoned altogether.

Among the four big infrastructure projects, progress has followed a similar “drunken walk”. The Lok Ma Chau Loop development has at last been agreed for a new innovation and technology park. The original study on use of the Loop was scheduled for 2012. As for the West Kowloon Cultural District, Donald’s Policy Address talked of “Phase 1 core arts and cultural facilities to be completed in stages starting from 2015.” Whoops.

The Kai Tak development plan was supposed to be finished in three phases, from 2013, 2016 and 2021. Again, the less said the better, since the area has languished for 19 years since the airport was moved to Chek Lap Kok. At least the cruise terminal seems now to be working. Donald’s final project was the North East New Territories New Development Area (NENT). It seems this NENT has evaporated, with the most recent 2080+ Plan talking instead of ambitious plans for North Lantau, and for the Northern New Territories.

This is surely a tortuously meandering decade-long “drunken walk”, illustrating the state of paralysis imposed by the filibustrous antics of Legislators, and pusillanimous officials anxious and uncertain because of the lack of public mandate for all major policy initiatives.

The one thing that has not changed is the manifest ability of the government to afford whatever plans manage to go ahead. At the time of Donald Tsang’s 2010 Policy Address, there were in the region of HK$1 trillion in the coffers to cover project costs. Today, the Exchange Fund alone holds HK$3.6 trillion. So as I revisit my “Ten Projects for the People”, I do it aware that if the government had the will, funds are even more plentifully available today than they were back in 2010. If they wanted, they could deliver on all of them.

At the time, I was at pains to emphasise that this was not a definitive list, just a “Dodwell” list, which fell into five policy areas – Education, Health Care, the Environment, Property, and Old Age. The three on education could today be merged into one, but remain just as important: massively strengthen language tuition; set aside significant funds for training; and fund a massive “gap year” programme that would enable students to spend a year between school and university, or a year between university and the working world, engaged in carefully vetted projects outside Hong Kong.

These three “projects” are surely as important as ever, re-enforcing the internationalness of Hong Kong, and preparing our community for the “100-year-life” that will need lifetime learning, and preparedness to face retirement in the 80s rather than at 65.

In health care, I called for the necessary billions to be invested in a Hong Kong-wide network of community clinics that would divert pressure from our hospitals, enabling our doctors to work with nurses, opticians, dentists, podiatrists, physiotherapists and other health care specialists at the heart of our communities, focusing not on illness, but on maintenance of wellness. I called for massive investment in more doctors and nurses, and the introduction of “comprehensive, compulsory health care insurance that exempted no-one”. To be fair to the government, it now seems to be paying attention to these priorities, but progress has been impossibly tentative.

I called for investment in affordable home ownership. No government disagreement here, I think – except that our failure over the past decade to deliver on this sits at the very heart of the political alienation and radicalism, in particular of our younger generation.

I called for a large-scale programme of sheltered housing for our elderly. Today, I would shift this priority away from care in elderly peoples’ homes, instead aiming for “ageing in place” – equipping homes and local communities to enable the elderly to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.

Finally I called for government to underwrite the development of Arts as Business. Too many today regard investment in the Arts as a luxury that in hard times can be deferred. Instead, they should recognize that the Arts – from dance and music to theatre and sculpture – is a massive employer of highly skilled, and high-value adding professionals providing exactly the sorts of jobs our high-value-adding economy needs. Sadly, little progress here, and delays over the West Kowloon Cultural District have not helped.

In short, I think my Ten Projects for the People have stood the test of time – in many ways better than Donald’s Mega-project list. Those contesting to become our next Chief Executive might do well to take them more seriously.
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