Oh to be a rentier

January 16th, 2015 atam Posted in General No Comments »

Can I make a confession? I aspire to be a rentier. After all, isn’t that what the government’s encouraging us all to do?

Think about it: the government’s warning of the burden of setting aside HK$50 billion to help “the elderly and needy”, whereas Hong Kong’s Superman can just click his fingers and banks will fall over each other to loan him the HK$55 billion he wants to make him even wealthier by restructuring his conglomerates. And how did he get so fabulously rich? By being a rentier, of course, making clever use of capital instruments and property transactions.

Despite the recent talk of measures to help young people become entrepreneurs, it’s obvious that the best way to survive in Hong Kong is to become unproductive members of society, deriving income, not from hard work, but from playing the stock market and buying property. After all, whether these young entrepreneurs will succeed or fail will depend on the extent to which they can shoulder high rent.

That’s how a former clerical worker I know made her decision on being forced to take early retirement. With limited opportunities for older workers and not wishing to claim CSSA, start a loss-making business or sell cardboard to make ends meet, she gathered the little savings she had and took a gamble in the stock market. She’s lost it all a couple of times, but overall she’s managed to make enough to cover her daily expenses.

Alas, for those without the stomach for that kind of risk or who may not be so fortunate, the search for decent work continues. What is ‘decent work’? Well, how ’bout cold-calling; cold-callers have the protection of the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development no less. Or various jobs to help the rich get richer… like organising a mega loan for two huge conglomerates; which, by the way, pays nicely too.

But truly, nothing beats being a rentier. When there is little meaningful work that gives us a sense of purpose and is spiritually rewarding, all we can do is try to join the rentier class in order to do things that are meaningful to us but which doesn’t pay, like growing vegetables or doing voluntary work. Of course, there is no shortage of those who simply want to be rentiers so they can play mahjong all day. Hence the overseas property advertisements on every other page of the newspaper and the stock market surges. No, Hong Kongers are not planning to emigrate en masse (though many are contemplating it given the political climate); they just want to own an overseas property because of the assumption that the only way to go for London property, for instance, is up. And despite dire economic fundamentals around the world, the local stock market is doing well because, well, what do you do when you can make more subscribing to IPOs and quickly selling for a profit, than working nine to nine doing your boss’s bidding?

The crunch

January 8th, 2015 atam Posted in General 1 Comment »

The sweet, sad smell of pine tells me that another Christmas is over. The pine needles are everywhere, in the lift lobby, all over the building entrance, driveway and pavement as the trees from which they came are discarded.

So that people can get into “the festive spirit” for two weeks of every year, enormous amounts of land and water are devoted to growing Christmas trees that are then shipped out around the world and transported to homes and shopping malls, burning fuel that is best left unused. And while there are families who can afford thousands of dollars to get their Christmas trees from some temperate land to sub-tropical Hong Kong, there are others who are shivering under flyovers and pushing carts of discarded paper and cardboard boxes on the street even though they’re 70 or even 80 years old.

Inequality has reached truly unsustainable levels and is set to get worse. A survey no doubt commissioned to help banks make lots of money out of “high net worth individuals” has shown that, in Hong Kong, the number of those with total assets worth more than US$30 million is 20 times more concentrated than the global average. Another survey showed that a typical young couple in the city would have to save for 14.4 years to get enough for a downpayment for a home at today’s prices. Hence all the bright ideas for helping young people set up their businesses, get on the housing ladder, etc, while dancing around the issue of wealth accumulation by landlords and developers who will make sure many of these entrepreneurs will fail while others will have to lose a good chunk of their hard-earned income, not to tax – which would, in a place with better governance, benefit society – but rent and expensive homes.

Older people who criticise young people for not getting on with it like they did in their day don’t understand the crunch confronting today’s working generation: the widening inequality resulting from the neoliberal agenda that is made a hundred times worse by the information revolution. The industrial revolution drove blue-collar workers out of factories, but at least better education opportunities meant their offsprings could find white-collar jobs that paid decent wages. Today, better education means, for many, student loans but not very bright prospects of decent jobs. Mark Zuckerberg’s making billions agglomerating the private data of Facebook users, but how much are many of the same Facebook users making? Jeff Bezos is also making billions from the online order giant Amazon, but how much are his warehouse workers making? For every young millionaire who makes it designing computer games, how many young people are getting by selling mobile phone plans?

The rising tide is not floating all boats; it’s only floating super-yachts that hire people to work as servants on board.


October 27th, 2014 atam Posted in Earth, Food, General No Comments »

Hey Halloween is here and you’d better be scared: the pumpkin harvest has been bad in a variety of places and farmers have warned of a shortage.

What’s really scary though is the thought of all the water and energy that go into producing a crop of pumpkins just so people can play Halloween. According to reports, of the ten million pumpkins grown in the UK each year, only 5% is consumed as food; the rest are carved into pumpkin lanterns. Separate reports said that the soil in the UK is so degraded that there are only 100 harvests left.

Once upon a time economic activity had a social function. Cars were manufactured to transport people and goods. Washing machines were made to free people from domestic drudgery. Now most economic activities exist purely to generate a profit. Environmentally harmful activities are justified by the provision of dubious employment; take, for example, Halloween. What exactly do people do with all the silly costumes and decorations once the partying’s over? Do those who dress up as zombies and the like to entertain party-goers get a decent wage around the year?

When Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner called for tighter regulations of cold calling, the response of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau was that this could affect the jobs of those employed to make cold calls. So jobs are jobs, eh, regardless of their nature. Amoral governments want people to produce bigger families so there are more young people to maintain clearly unsustainable economic growth. More young people, more party-goers come Halloween, right?

Who’s occupying what?

October 8th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, General 1 Comment »

It has been noted that Occupy Central is different from the larger Occupy movement, which is anti-capitalist or anti-inequality, since Occupy Central is about universal suffrage, but look deeper and similarities will reveal themselves.

If you look at the recent meeting held by Chinese president Xi Jinping with Hong Kong ‘leaders’, you’d notice that those present all belong to the top 1% of Hong Kong in terms of income; nobody from the other 99% was there. When there is advice on the city’s sentiments from only the top 1%, it’s little wonder that its people are misrepresented.

The Occupy Central protesters are not alone in their frustration; all over the world, governments are pursuing agendas that protect those in power and those with vested interests. They may claim to support any clamour for democracy, equality and justice, but their actions, in their own cities/countries and abroad, typically demonstrate hypocrisy and expediency that suit their own purposes and not the needs of the suffering masses.

Note that the tycoon who was pictured seated right next to the Chinese president is also the one who’s now building flats with all of 196 square feet of space – for people, apparently. Note also that Russia got away with annexing the Crimea from Ukraine because Germany depends on Russia for its gas and the UK depends on Russian oligarchs to prop up its London property market, which has priced out virtually every local not in the top 10%. It’s a vicious cycle: Hong Kongers priced out of their own property market have turned their attentions to London too; flats and houses are no longer for living in, but are just another form of investment. Note also how, on the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq, people are dying from an onslaught because the Turkish government wants to weaken its Kurdish opponents rather than save lives.

There is a nice irony in the cancellation of a climate change symposium “due to the sustained disruptions in the city”. Eh? You’d think that a climate change symposium that was to take place at a venue accessible only on foot would be the least likely to be affected by the Occupy Central blockade of vehicular traffic. Not so. Delegates were supposed to be accommodated at a hotel a short walk away from the venue, which means that, once deposited from the airport, they could easily reach the venue without any problem. Those who’d intended to attend, if they really understand the issue, would be expected to take the train and then walk – no surface road transport is really necessary – but then this being Hong Kong, the concern must be that their chauffeur-driven cars would be stuck in traffic on the way.

The Occupy protesters were drenched by a couple of amber rain episodes. It’s been observed that this past rainy season has been unusually dry, despite the serious downpours when it did rain. The people of Hong Kong could do with more information about climate change, but it’s not to be, because fossil-fuel-driven vehicles are occupying the road bumper-to-bumper. The people of Hong Kong could do with a fairer society too, except that those occupying corner offices don’t want them to.

Manpower shortage

July 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General 1 Comment »

A window fell off a high floor of a residential building across the road from me a few days ago, landing smack on the driveway/main entrance.

Fortunately, it happened close to midnight and no one or car was passing through. Had it happened around midday, the consequence could be horrible.

Hasn’t the government kept reminding people to maintain their windows properly through posters and informercials? Indeed. This building, in fact, underwent a mandatory window inspection only a few months ago. Someone living on a lower floor told me that the inspector who checked her windows “advised” her to remove the strings she’d been using to secure a rickety joint with rubber band instead. I’m sure that’s cheaper than fixing the joint. And for sure whoever did the inspection has long collected his pay and moved on to other buildings issued with the government’s inspection orders.

What a great idea for employment generation, these inspection schemes. Some years ago there was unemployment in the construction industry. After much agitating, the government finally said, oh all right, we’ll launch ten mega projects, all the railway lines we’ve been talking about for the past ten years, plus minor works like building inspections. And all of a sudden, there aren’t enough people to make sure the infrastructure projects are implemented on schedule and there’s such demand that those in the trade can’t do their job properly.

MTR probe

July 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General No Comments »

Guess what: one of the international experts asked to investigate the delay to the Express Rail Link is none other than Bent Flyvbjerg, the author of Megaprojects and Risks. I wonder if he’d hand out copies of the book to the government officials he’d meet.

Energy from waste and wasted opportunity

July 4th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General No Comments »

There is a consultation on Hong Kong’s future energy mix and there is much debate over the the government’s proposed plan to build a huge incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau.

Are the two things related? Often when poor policies are formulated people complain that the various government bureaus/departments don’t talk to each other, but in this case both the energy consultation and the incinerator proposal are under the purview of the same bureau. Yet, somehow, boxed-in thinking rules the day and there appears to be no attempt to find more cost-effective solutions to the problems of energy supply and waste.

In the debate over Hong Kong’s future energy supply, the issue is dominated by whether or not some of the future supply should be obtained from the mainland grid or generated locally using natural gas. Renewal energy is mentioned but not given much weight. Now Hong Kong is unlucky when it comes to the prevailing forms of renewable energy. The sun doesn’t always shine and photovoltaic panels can’t generate much when stuck on the roof of high rises. And there isn’t always much wind either.

But what Hong Kong does have is plenty of waste. The Zero Carbon Building – designed by the Secretary for the Environment no less, when he was an architect – already uses biodiesel from waste cooking oil to generate power. As for the municipal waste that can’t be recycled and which the government is proposing to incinerate, well, why are we paying lots of money to build a huge facility that will generate even more carbon emissions, if not from the plant itself, then from the process of reclaiming the land for it and using the trucks and barges to transport the waste to the remote location for incineration?

The management consultant, qualified electrical engineer and columnist Tom Yam has long argued against the project’s huge cost to the taxpayer. What he hasn’t highlighted, however, is the opportunity for distributed energy generation that urban planners elsewhere expect to be part of the future of resilient cities. Build small incinerators throughout Hong Kong. Let them take the waste generated nearby, incinerate it and generate some electricity for the area in the process. If it’s possible to locate refuse collection points/transfer stations in all the districts throughout Hong Kong, why not small incinerators that will not be quite so costly to build?

Megaprojects and Risk

May 30th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General 2 Comments »

Recent news is that the cost of developing the West Kowloon Cultural District has ballooned to such an extent that the money is now enough to cover only the first two of three phases of the project. There are also news about cost overruns at various major infrastructure schemes, from the boundary crossing to the Express Rail Link.

These cost overruns are typically blamed on rising construction costs, but don’t be fooled. The title of this post is in italics because it’s actually the name of a book by Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

In the course of researching the book, the authors studied almost 150 major infrastructure projects around the world. Cost overruns, they discovered, were widespread. “The difference between actual and estimated investment cost is often 50-100%, and for many projects cost overruns end up threatening project viability.”

Rejoice – Hong Kong is not alone then. Alas, the authors also revealed that the real cause of cost overruns is not what our government would like us to believe. The main cause, according to them, is the “inadequate deliberation about risk and lack of accountability in the project decision-making process.”

Let me quote a bit more: “Accountability is low, and politicians who underestimate costs in order to have projects approved are rarely in office when actual viability can be calculated, if it ever is. Contractors and others with special interests in major projects are also eager to have their proposals accepted….Uncertainty in estimating viability is related in this way not only to the innate difficulty of predicting the future but also to power and interests. If the authorities responsible for project development and decision making fail to take this into account, namely if they do not develop the necessary institutional checks and balances for project appraisal, the risk is that the wrong projects are implemented.”

So here’s a question: who was in power at the time this book was published – round the time Hong Kong was suffering a downturn triggered by SARS – who decided to pump-prime the economy by launching a whole series of major infrastructure projects? Once a project has been approved by LegCo based on total cost that is pulled out of thin air, it enters the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stage of development, where taxpayers have no choice but to pay for it to the bitter end, whatever the cost overrun, since abandoning it would be a waste and a cause of huge contractual claims. It’s no good scapegoating other parties for it; someone in power’s playing dice with taxpayers’ money.

It’s the planners who got it all wrong

May 2nd, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General 1 Comment »

MTR can’t get anything right at the moment. The high-speed rail link is behind schedule, the century-old East Rail keeps breaking down, people complain about overcrowding at all hours, and key personnel are jumping ship.

Not a few commentators have said that these problems wouldn’t arise had the government emphasised more diversity in public transport rather than shift more and more people onto the MTR. Actually, the issue is not the MTR’s share of public transport but the whole urban planning approach.

When the MTR network was initially developed, it only covered the urban core of Hong Kong. The focus was on moving people within this urban core more efficiently. East Rail, then run by the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, was designed to facilitate the familial visits of those with relatives living on the other side of the border and business trips for businessmen with factories in Shenzhen and beyond. It wasn’t meant to be a commuter line.

When new towns started to be developed in the 1970s, they were meant to be self-contained towns that would provide both homes and jobs for their residents. The idea was soon abandoned however, when the dearth of jobs on offer in these places forced people to commute back to the urban core to work. Instead of looking into ways to generate more employment opportunities in the new towns, the focus was switched entirely to the provision of more efficient transport links to the urban core.

Rail transport has a lot of merit compared with road transport; it doesn’t burn any petrol, is low-carbon and doesn’t cause any roadside pollution. But when the whole urban planning model is based on using the mass transit network to shift a city with a population of seven million, most of them residing in remote new towns, to a few key job centres in the urban core, the system’s going to be overwhelmed. The overcrowding is actually a sign that the model is working very well indeed.

The solution, however, is not increasing train frequency but re-examining the planning of Hong Kong – not just in terms of land use but also job creation.

Are the new towns planned with a good mix of shops, factories and offices to provide employment locally? Currently only two new towns – Tai Po and Tseung Kwan O – provide some form of employment for lower to middle-income groups at their respective industrial estates. Tung Chung residents can find jobs at the airport or the theme park, but places like Ma On Shan and Tin Shui Wai are little more than remote sleeper towns. It’s OK if one has a middle-class income that allows one to suffer the commute to the urban core to work; if not, then life can be pretty tough. There’s good reason for Tin Shui Wai to be dubbed the “city of sadness”. This is also why those who called on the government to build a new office complex not at Tamar but in Tin Shui Wai made a lot of sense. At the very least, the civil servants who don’t live in the western New Territories would be travelling in the opposite direction to everybody else heading towards Central, thus easing the overcrowding.

Trains may be a more environmentally friend way of moving about, but the truly sustainable way of living is for homes and workplaces to be within walking distance of each other.

A fast fast

April 14th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, General No Comments »

How often are charitable campaigns just opportunities for us to feel good about ourselves rather than genuinely helping others?

World Vision just concluded a successful fundraising at Aberdeen sports ground, where about 2,000 took part in a 30-hour fast to raise funds and awareness of poverty.

Apparently a mother found the idea so meaningful she drove her son all the way from Guangzhou to take part. When she’s not happily feeling smug about having made a contribution, perhaps she can reflect on the practical good she could have done by simply not making the trip, thereby saving a significant amount of carbon emissions from burning non-renewable fossil fuels. And how many people will they be able to feed if they simply sell the car and give that money to the poor?