The high cost of elitism
SCMP March 6, 2006
Private affluence, publicsqualor" - the phrase coined 50 years
ago by US economist John Galbraith seems to be the motto of Financial
Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen. In most countries, people who inherited
billions and have lived off the rents - in Mr Tang's case, of textile
quotas - from the efforts of an earlier generation, excel in their
sense of responsibility to the community.
Not so, it seems, the political leadership in Hong Kong, which is
provided partly by a second or third generation of the ultra-wealthy
by a bureaucratic elite. The latter makes a virtue out of spending
as little as possible on the community while awarding itself the
highest civil-service salaries in the world.
Take this extract from Mr Tang's budget speech: "We would have
liked to develop more parks, piazzas, open space, and cultural and
heritage sites. But where is the money for all these going to come
It doesn't bother most people if the prestige of Mr Tang's class of
people is measured by their stables of elegant cars, wardrobes of designer
clothes, consumption of rare wines or their collections of diamond-studded
watches. Each to his own taste.
But it is bothersome that people who spend so much on private elegance
should be so keen to thwart the desire of the vast majority for the
parks, piazzas, heritage buildings and open spaces that give pleasure
to the vast majority. They are the ones who do not own houses on The
Peak or Shouson Hill, surrounded by trees and (relatively) clean air.
Contrast the attitude of Hong Kong's unelected leaders with what is
happening elsewhere in Asia. Compare the attitudes and policies of
Tang & Co not with old, rich societies in California, Sydney or
Amsterdam, but those in Asia that achieved relative prosperity at the
same time as, or later than, Hong Kong - Seoul, Taipei and Singapore.
The reason we cannot "afford" more parks is not that they
are expensive to run, but that they will thwart the sale of the sites
to developers. We can afford, according to the Tang doctrine, to give
away vast areas of green Lantau to Disney, but not create green spaces
in densely crowded urban areas.
We cannot afford to build piazzas or not to tear down old buildings,
but we can afford to spend billions on a prime harbourfront site for
the bureaucracy. We can afford to fill in more of the harbour and create
new waterfront roads for the car-owning small minority, but not to
provide green spaces for the majority.
Contrast this with what has happened in Seoul, a city of 10 million.
Two years ago, it turned what had once been a giant traffic intersection
in front of city hall into an open green space where office workers
and tourists could stroll. More recently, it has demolished a 6km elevated
road and restored to life a stream running through the middle of the
city, creating a riverside park and piazza.
Or look at Taipei, once one of the world's dreariest capitals. When
he was mayor, current President Chen Shui-bian made a name for himself
by bulldozing buildings to create new parks. The current administration
of Ma Ying-jeou continues to make a political point of expanding the
green spaces - and waging a successful campaign to cut waste.
Hong Kong is out of step with all the advanced democratic societies
of East Asia. It is also out of step with Singapore, where the government
sees the practical as well as aesthetic merits of trees and revitalisation,
rather than razing old areas.
But in Hong Kong, public squalor reigns so that an elite can buy show-off
toys. Asia's "world city" apparently can't afford to beautify
itself, only the insides of the garages of the super rich - or, for
those with everything else - the family helicopter hangar.
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