Squandering our assets on insiders

SCMP August 29, 2006

The evidence continues to fall, thick and fast, of blurred lines between the government and private sector - which are totally inappropriate for a modern, educated, prosperous society.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club is setting up a branch in Beijing to attract new members. Bully for them. However, one has to wonder where the money is coming from: this organisation was given a betting monopoly by the government, but it is run as a private club by a tiny, self-selecting group.

It has club houses and other, splendid, fixed assets for the non-racing enjoyment of its members - which are valued on its books, under "members' services", at a mere HK$284 million.

I am all in favour of horse racing, whether as a sport for lovers of horses or a device for lovers of gambling. But the millions who use the monopoly gambling facilities in effect subsidise leisure facilities for a club which has only about 20,000 active members.

Enabling football betting is certainly a service to the public. But the fact that it was given to the Jockey Club, further extending its monopoly, raises many questions about propriety - given that its stewards and voting members make up just 1 per cent of the total.

Let us hear no more nonsense about how much good the Jockey Club does via the charities it supports. The whole system reeks of the worst aspects of colonial paternalism in which do-gooding is closely linked to elite clubbery and social climbing, and payments are made on the basis of opaque judgments by people who select themselves.

In 2004-2005, almost 40 per cent of the club's HK$1 billion donations went to a scheme called Positive Adolescent Training through Holistic Social Programmes - whatever that means - to be administered by the government bureaucracy.

Despite a monopoly that nets it some HK$2.5 billion after betting duty and tax, there is only modest accountability for its overall spending - and particularly for the charitable donations, which vary drastically from year to year.

Let us put an end to these antiquated, centralised charity systems (including the Community Chest) - and encourage everyone from tycoon Li Ka-shing to the average householder to contribute personally to the charities of their choice.

You can be sure they won't be funding government bureaucrats. Hong Kong lacks the sort of sports facilities that are the norm in far less prosperous places. Corpulent representatives of sport and culture press for giant, "world-class" stadiums - and doubtless big public-works contracts for builders - while local sports such as football languish partly for want of local facilities.

Another bit of mutual back-scratching by the bureaucrats is evident in the use of public funds - in the form of a senior government employee - to promote the candidacy of Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun as head of the World Health Organisation. Dr Chan left the government to join the WHO, and has a career there whether or not she succeeds in her leadership bid.

That was a reasonable career decision, particularly after the criticism she faced for the handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. But she, not the Hong Kong government, made her career choice.

If Hong Kong wants to promote one of its own as a senior international official it could do better than a bureaucrat whose local career ended in controversy.

Dr Chan is technically very competent. But the ability to stand up to pressure from governments and corporations is an even more important qualification for this job. Dr Chan showed rather less resolution in dealing with the mainland in the early days of Sars.

Until the legislature can regain more oversight over Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's expanding bureaucracy, public assets will continue to be squandered for the benefit of insiders - public or private.





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