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 and partly 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 from?"

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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