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Handout a sorry mess from the start

Editorial | Mary Ma Jan 28, 2019
Applications for the HK$4,000 government cash handout opened last week. If Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po hadn't reminded us of it before the launch, how many of us would have forgotten? Many, I reckon. The public should be excused for being forgetful because officials had taken such a long time to prepare the scheme. The financial services and the treasury bureau should be spared the blame because nobody within the government had ever expected to give the public the cash when Chan presented his budget last year. Chan was forced to offer the cash under pressure from all parties in the Legislative Council, and the bureau was suddenly saddled with the task of producing a scheme from scratch. It could have been sooner had there not been so many strings attached to limit eligibility. It's as simple as ABC to appreciate that whenever there's an eligibility test, the process was bound to be complicated to make the procedure difficult. Thus, there were the requirements for proof of address, returning the form by post, etc. The government hadn't wanted to give the money in the first place. However, once a decision was made to dish it out, it should have been generous to avoid the social backfire - a policy decision expected of an authority above the bureau. In hindsight, it was a mistake for Chan to knuckle under the pressure - even if the pressure had also come from the government's allies in Legco. Then Chan wouldn't have had to apologize again yesterday for the confusion that has marred the launch of the handout scheme so far. Would Chan commit a similar mistake in his upcoming budget? He had better be smarter next time. It should be clear to him that the chorus crying out for him to give out cash a la Macau has never been loud over the years and that they largely issued from political parties. When his predecessor, the mustachioed John Tsang Chun-wah, gave HK$6,000 to everyone holding a permanent Hong Kong ID card in 2011 - including those who had emigrated overseas - he was also criticized for handing out the cash. Critics slammed him for letting the very rich receive the money too. It would not be in the interests of society to repeat the mistake. Lawmakers raised their pitch a year ago after learning the surplus for 2017-2018 financial year would be about HK$150 billion. Sadly, the economic environment has changed since then and - worse - the situation is still deteriorating. Accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu estimated the surplus for 2018-2019 would be slightly over one third that of 2017-2018. Looking forward, the annual surplus will likely sink further for 2019-2020, as economic headwinds are expected to intensify in the mainland and around the world. Problems associated with the serious wealth gap in the United States have all surfaced after five weeks of government shutdown. In contrast, Hong Kong has done much better in this aspect, as the poor are basically receiving the care they need. It's absolutely unnecessary for Chan to give cash handouts again in his next budget. He'd better save them for more rainy days ahead.

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April 2019