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Car horns

Rants I live on the high street in a part of Hong Kong called Happy Valley. On numerous occasions every day someone sounds their car horn, often for extended periods. For some reason drivers seem to think that traffic jams will clear faster the longer they sound the car horn but do they think that the only ones who will hear their horn are the ones who are blocking the road?

I was aware that, in other developed countries such as UK and NZ, sounding the horn is illegal except in an emergency so I was surprised to find that regulations in Hong Kong say exactly the same thing: Under regulation 43, a driver shall not use any audible warning device on a vehicle on a road except to warn any person on or near a road of danger. A traffic jam hardly meets this definition.

Sounding the car horn is illegal and selfish but for some reason we tolerate it on a daily basis. I know the police have plenty of more important things to worry about but I wonder when the last prosecution for honking took place. I don't expect a police crackdown but it would be nice to think that drivers could give a little thought to others before they honk.


Anthems

Rants Not everyone in Hong Kong is terribly keen on being part of China and China has done many things in recent years to make people less than happy to be taken into the fold of our brothers north of the border. One way in which people have made their dislike of the mainland government felt is by booing the national anthem at football matches. This has not gone down well and the Chinese government has introduced legislation regarding the use and performance of the national anthem. People can't just play the national anthem whenever they want, only on special occasions. You also have to stand up straight and adopt a solemn attitude. Despite one-country, two-systems, Hong Kong will have to enact its own version of this law. Most of us will chuckle at the idea of being told how to perform the national anthem but them up north are a bit sensitive.

In recent weeks I have ben watching the Four Nations rugby championship from the southern hemisphere. As with most sporting events these matches start with the performance of the national anthems of the two teams. These days, the anthems are all part of the entertainment. Argentina is one of the teams and their national anthem is more like an act from an opera, with a very long introduction and a melody that defeats all but a few. In Argentina this was performed a cappella by half a dozen opera singers, providing the orchestral introduction and then breaking into song. The crowd joined in, each in their own key, time and probably their own words. It was great fun, chaotic, full of passion and a number of players had tears in their eyes by the end.

Argentinian Anthem

The other national anthems were performed with equal passion. It should be pointed out that the singers perform live. The Chinese national anthem seems to consist of one standard recording that is played every time. Lacks a bit of feeling. There is no way that you could describe the renditions of the anthems at the rugby as being solemn and I'm pretty sure there was more than one person in a rabbit costume roaring away at the top of their voice.

No one tells the people in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa how to sing their anthems, nor when they can be performed. People are happy to take part and are proud to support their countries. If you have to tell people to show respect then there is something very wrong, which is the case with China. Any teacher or parent will know that, these days, you cannot demand respect just because of your position. Respect has to be earned and respect is not the same as fear. Unfortunately the Chinese government thinks that stamping its feet and having a temper tantrum will result in everyone suddenly falling in love with the motherland. I think not!

Housing

Rants The housing problem won't go away. Every week there is some reference to the housing shortage and how to solve it. The government is going to offer starter homes for the middle classes and has said it will not destroy the country parks in order to build more houses, much to the delight of many and the chagrin of a considerable number. No, they plan to reclaim more land from the sea.

Now, Beijing has its problems too but they have recently announced that 23 million people is enough and have announced a population cap, there's no more room. In Hong Kong we can keep building more houses, and making smaller and smaller flats for a long time yet, but perhaps we should take Beijing's lead on this one. You can argue that if people do not have anywhere to live then their quality of life is compromised but the destruction of the environment also reduces the quality of people's lives. At some point, you have to draw a line.

In the 28 years I have been in HK, the country parks have become more widely used. Some will say that there are plenty of areas of the country parks that are not used, so why not develop them. Just having the bits you use is not enough. If people use a path but do not venture off to the sides does it mean it is reasonable to develop the bits alongside the path? Of course it isn't.

I have just returned from a trip to Macau which has a few bits of remaining woodland and hillside but these are just tiny islands in a sea of huge casinos. While any bit of greenery is nice it doesn't give the Macanese much chance from the metropolis which is Macau and Zhuhai. Hong Kong is a pleasant place to live because it has such wonderful countryside in which to escape.

There are areas of farmland in HK that are no longer used and there are calls to develop those but the same argument applies, they do provide a bit of greenery and we need a few plants to absorb a bit of pollution. There are other sites in HK which are referred to as brownfield, which are sites that may have been used for some form of industry and may be polluted in some way. These sites could be looked at, as could all the old, rotting factory buildings which are emptying as HK is no longer a base for manufacturing.

Despite the housing shortage the government is looking to import people from overseas to care for our ageing population. You would have thought that, out of 7.5 million people, we could find one or two who could take this on. The trouble is, it is not glamorous and is not well-paid. We would rather reward hedge-fund managers, bankers, lawyers, accountants, etc. with ludicrous amounts of cash while people who care for the elderly earn very little so we have to look overseas. That will help the housing shortage.

Is there a housing shortage? Let me rephrase the question, is there a home shortage? How many people have multiple houses but they are mainly for investment. Many, I believe, are unoccupied. I was looking to buy something for myself recently and visited two nice flats that had been empty since they were built 10 years ago. Prices here are astronomical so it is very difficult to save enough money for a deposit so, to some extent, building more houses is in the hope that more people will be able to afford to buy their own.

Destroying the environment, be it reclaiming land from the sea or clearing areas of country park is irreversible. Is there any form of long-term plan or are we just going to keep building?

Supermarkets

Rants Whenever I go overseas and return to HK I find it unbelievable that we do not make more of a fuss about our appalling supermarkets. In fact, super, is hardly an appropriate adjective.

UK has a range of excellent supermarkets, e.g. Sainsburys, Waitrose, Tesco, ASDA, Lidl. New Zealand has New World, Countdown, Woolworths, and there will be a similar lists of supermarket chains in other countries. We have Wellcome, where you are often not, and Park n Shop where you can't park and shopping can be a challenge. There are some smaller players but generally, the HK supermarket scene is restricted to these two. Of course, Park n Shop and Wellcome provide their premium outlets, such as International, Market Place and Fusion, but they are essentially the same shops and suffer from the same problems, they just have less blood and sawdust on the floor.

So what’s wrong with our supermarkets? Compared to overseas chains our supermarkets are too small. They may be designed so that the aisles may be wide enough for two trolleys to pass but shops pile up boxes in the aisles with products that may be on offer.

boxes

boxes

So instead of being wide enough for two trolleys the aisles become wide enough for just one trolley. I have no doubt that legislation in other countries would consider such practices as dangerous, if not illegal.

Add to that, the staff stocking the shelves seem to be of the opinion that the shop is there to give them employment rather than to serve customers and do little to make way for shoppers. Trolleys containing the goods being stacked may be left around the shop, usually in a haphazard manner so that they block the aisles. It is so tempting to shunt them to another part of the shop.

Most of our supermarkets have small stock rooms and no access other than through the front door whereas those overseas may have stock rooms half the size of the shop. Delivery trucks block the roads. Trolleys laden with new stock have to be pushed from the truck into the shop through the same door that customers are trying to enter and leave, usually by men who just want to get the job done and really aren't too interested in the customers. And what happens to the stock once inside the shop? Trolleys and boxes are piled up and customers find themselves removing boxes to get at the products hidden on the shelves behind them. Combined with the display boxes and the shelf stackers there isn't a lot of space left and the aisles that started off wide enough for two trolleys can be reduced to being wide enough for no trolleys.

deliveries

Having fought your way past the display boxes, the delivered stock and the shelf-stackers you head for the checkout. Some shops may be generously provided with six checkouts, of which three may even be open, while queues of 15-20 people tail back past the shelves providing additional obstructions for shoppers to negotiate. The staff on the tills, not surprisingly, do not give the impression that they enjoy their work. Quite often they will be holding conversations with their colleague at the neighbouring checkout or shouting to another across the far side of the shop. Eye contact and smiles are noticeably absent, and who can blame them, not a job I would want, but a bit of interaction with customers would probably improve the experience for both staff and customers. 

checkout

But do we need all these staff on the checkouts? Here, as in other areas, Hong Kong has failed to make use of technology which is widely used elsewhere. Modern supermarkets have self-checkouts with maybe 10 or more checkout stations supervised by one or two members of staff to deal with problems. With so many checkouts it is rare to have the long waits that we suffer from here.

self checkout

But people will say this is all well and good but other countries have more space to build bigger supermarkets and rents are not as high as they are here. This is undeniably true but, as with many situations in Hong Kong, problems could be solved if there was a willingness to deal with issues. But let's be realistic, our supermarkets will continue to be second-rate as they have a relative monopoly and little incentive to change.

So, let's provide that incentive to change. On our supermarket shelves, we see products from Waitrose, Carrefour and other European chains. Instead of just having their products on the shelves, how about inviting some of these major players to set up in Hong Kong? The government seems able to find sites to give away to expensive international schools so how about they offer a plot of land to Sainsburys or another overseas supermarket chain? A plot of land big enough to allow them to build a large supermarket with plenty of parking, perhaps somewhere central such as Sha Tin. Hong Kong people could then experience a proper supermarket without having to go to China or overseas.

Even those without cars might find it worthwhile to make the trip. All new towns should have similar facilities. The government could provide some incentives to encourage overseas chains to come here. What they must NOT do is to allow one of our existing supermarkets to take advantage of such an offer as we need the competition and Park n Shop and Wellcome need to see how it should be done. With serious competition, we might actually see some improvement in our local supermarkets.

Imagination

Rants Complaints about the poor standard of our taxi service and the introduction of Uber did not cause our government to shake up the taxi industry and insist that standards improve. Instead the plans are to introduce a premium service for which we will pay more.

Complaints that our hospitals A&E services are being misused led to the proposed increase in the fee from $100 to $180 for using the service plus the suggestion that more people should use private medicine.

Complaints that our landfills are being filled up too quickly did not bring about improved recycling facilities nor restrictions on the amount of packaging that manufacturers use but did result in the proposed waste management fee, which will be a great deterrent for those who choose to dump their rubbish in the streets, which they do at the moment despite there being no charge.

Complaints about the amount of illegal parking have led to a proposed increase in parking fines from $320 to $400, as if the wealthy are really going to be bothered, particularly when you compare the cost of paying parking fines to the cost of parking legally in one of our multi-storey car parks.

And to solve complaints about the so-called housing crisis the government introduces measures to make it more expensive to borrow money for a second apartment and yet people are still queuing up to add to their collection.

I think we can see a bit of a pattern here. Charging more will solve will all our problems, or at least that’s what the government would like us to think. Do we see improvement in any of these situations? Of course not. Fines are not the answer.

The government seems unable, or unwilling, to analyse the real cause of problems and lacks the imagination and the will to stand up against vested interests and the rich and powerful. In a bizarre article in this morning’s South China Morning Post, Alex Lo argues that, it is right to look at building houses in the country parks, despite there being plenty of other land on which to build, because the government is too spineless to stand up against the landowners and the Heung Yee Kuk.

With Carrie Lam’s cabinet waiting in the wings likely to deliver more of the same, the situation is not encouraging. We need strong government with initiative and imagination that is prepared to fight for what is right but people like that probably would not go down too well with Beijing.

Rubbish

Hong Kong is running out of landfill space. The government, not known for its imagination, has decided that the answer is to charge for waste disposal by introducing a system similar to other countries where we will buy garbage bags from shops, the price of which will include a levy for waste charges. They defend this action by saying it works in other countries. I don't doubt that but Hong Kong is not other countries.

Many Hong Kong residents don't show a great deal of pride in their environment. It is common to see people drop litter in the street, out of car windows, even out of the windows of flats. Take a look at popular BBQ sites on a Sunday morning, or walk along the many trails in our country parks and look at the amount of rubbish left behind. Rubbish bins in the streets are being fitted with smaller openings to discourage people from leaving large items and bins in the countryside are disappearing as we are being encouraged to take our litter home. How's that for logic. Take your litter home and dispose of it there - where you will be charged for the privilege. If people are happy to dump their litter in the street and the country parks now when rubbish disposal is free, are they more likely to leave the place tidy if they have to pay for waste disposal?

There are suggestions that the waste charge will encourage people to recycle. Well, it might if someone provided the infrastructure for recycling. Where I live there are probably half a dozen recycling points which have a container about the size of a small dustbin for paper, plastic and tins. Great for four or five families but these are to serve tens of thousands of people. Totally inadequate. And there are plenty of us who would love to know what happens to items collected from the recylcing bins. Is it really recycled?

In NZ, and I am sure other countries too, the local recycling station which served, at most, a few thousand people, consisted of a large container with slots for paper, cardboard, plastics, metals together with a number of crates for glass: brown glass, green glass, clear glass.... But I would not necessarily suggest that we should have more recycling stations, nor bigger recycling stations in HK.

If people can't be bothered putting rubbish in a bin then they aren't going to separate their rubbish and trundle off down the street to find the recycling point where they can dispose of it. All new housing developments should be required to provide easy-to-use recycling facilities, not just a few bins. It would be unreasonable to expect all older buildings to provide sophisticated facilities but there should be some provision made to assist and encourage residents to separate their rubbish at source.

A much more environmentally friendly and sustainable approach to waste reduction would be to reduce the amount of waste that can be produced. A lot of products come with excessive packaging. If governments in general, and our own in particular, were to put limits on the amount of packaging allowed then it would go a long way to reducing the overall waste produced.

If the waste charge is just part of a plan to reduce waste then I'm all for it, but on its own it looks like another half-baked idea that may prove to be less than successful.



Think outside the box

Rants This week, our respected leader, CY Leung, made his parting speech as Hong Kong's CEO and one of his statements setting out what the future may hold in store, was to address Hong Kong's housing problem. Hong Kong has a population of almost 7.5 million people stuffed into an area of 1100 sq km, of which 25% is developed and 40% is designated country park. The result is that the developed areas have a stacking system for storing people in little boxes while a lot of great countryside remains to provide an escape from the crowds and which fights a losing battle filtering out the pollution that we shove into the atmosphere on a daily basis.

In the past, children were content to live with their parents until the old folk keeled over but these days people want their own space, which adds to the growing demand for housing. And as demand grows, so do prices so that the average person needs to save for 150 years before they will have enough for the deposit on a flat. Now, our dear leader said that the space for building more houses is so limited that we need to "think outside the box" in order to come up with a solution. And what was his great, out-of-the-box, brain wave? To build on the edges of the country parks. I can only think that, if that is out-of-the-box thinking then CY must live in a very small box which is certainly not the case when you look at his mansion on the Peak.

In the same week, a new development of flats was put on sale in Tsuen Wan and all 400 flats were snapped up on the first day of sales. Clearly there is a high demand for housing. But let's analyse the demographics of these purchasers. Of course, I do not have the figures but that never stopped anyone from putting their case forward. So, if we were to round up these 400 buyers it would be nice to know how many:
- different purchasers there were
- were buying a home to live in themselves
- were buying a flat as an investment to rent out
- were buying a flat as a speculative investment
- were buying a flat through a company
And I am sure you can think of a few more categories.

Almost certainly, some of the buyers will be adding yet another to their portfolio of rental flats. Now, don't get me wrong, it is a very sensible way to invest your money and is something that people do all over the world. Some wouid say that there is a high demand for rental property, or is that because prices are too high for ordinary people to buy because of the demand from investors? But at least these flats are being used as opposed to the estimated tens of thousands of unoccupied flats waiting for prices to rise enough to make resale worthwhile.

So, my first point is that house prices are pushed up because a significant number of buyers are not buying homes but investments. Now, Hong Kong is a free market economy and no government is going to enact legislation that will restrict people's ability to invest their money any way they want but it is hard to ignore that if people were only able to buy one flat and they had to live in it then the property market, and the demand for new housing, would cool down rapidly. And it also brings into question the extent of the housing shortage.

As many people point out, there are plenty of brownfield sites that could be cleaned up and reused but often seem to be ignored. The Wang Chau development was an interesting case in point where phase 1 ate up land occupied by villagers and phases 2 and 3 were to be built on a brownfield site, a large part of which is controlled by a rural leader for the operation of a car park and open storage business. Phase 1 got the go ahead but phases 2 and 3 were deferred.

With most of Hong Kong's manufacturing industries having headed north over the border to China, Hong Kong now has a large supply of empty warehouses and factories. These could be renovated or rebuilt to provide housing.

And then we have the small house policy which allows an indigenous male villager who is 18 years old and is descended through the male line from a resident in 1898 of a recognized village in the New Territories, an entitlement to one concessionary grant during his lifetime to build one small house. In some areas, these small houses, each with three floors, fill every available space. Many of these indigenous villagers do not even live in Hong Kong and are just as likely to reside permanently in Manchester, but why miss out on an investment opportunity. So land is eaten up by this ludicrous rule which no one has the courage to overturn. Hong Kong is not short of tall buildings and tall buildings have the advantage of stacking more people into the available space. If this free for all of three story houses was stopped and replaced with some planned development of, say, 10 stories, the same number of people could be housed in a much smaller space.

Many Chinese have a strange attitude towards nature. Bears are kept in terrible conditions in order to farm bile for medicines, although there are no proven benefits. The same goes for tiger penis and then elephants are killed to provide ivory. Both tigers and elephants are struggling for survival. In the same way, land is a commodity. For many the country parks are wasted space and should be fair game for developers like any other land in Hong Kong but once we start building in the country parks they will be lost forever.

So CY's out-of-the-box thinking seems to benefit property developers and investors but probably not many others. Let's put him back in the box and hope that our next CEO shows more imagination...but just look at what we have to choose from, not that we get to choose.

One China

Rants This year we have seen China kidnap booksellers from Hong Kong, a story that strangely disappeared from the news, locked up protesters in Wukan, jailed lawyers defending dissidents, continue to develop islands in the South China Sea, ignoring international rulings, and generally shown itself to be paranoid in its fear of criticism. It also continues to take the primary school playground attitude of "If you are friends with them then we won't be friends with you," regarding the likes of Taiwan and the Dalia Lama.

Do the people of Hong Kong wish to be associated with that sort of behaviour? Does it give them credit to kowtow to Beijing and go along with everything they say and do? Wouldn't it be nice if someone in the Hong Kong government had the guts to stand up and suggest that we may be one country but their system is not the way civilised nations behave? But none of our legislators have the backbone to do that.

On the other hand, president-elect Trump has and suggests that USA need not be bound by the one-China policy. I am not a fan of Mr. Trump, nor of American foreign policy, but this is one of his better tweets. China is a bully, just as other nations in the past have been bullies. The best way to deal with bullies is for everyone to stand up to them. If governments stood up to Beijing and told them what they can do with their one-China policy the world would be a better place and China could worry about more important issues. Unfortunately, governments want the money China offers and so Mr. Trump will probably find himself alone on this one.

Are bankers necessary?

Rants Banks used to be places with big vaults where they stored lots of shoe boxes, each with the name of a customer and containing the customers' hard-earned money. Incredibly clever bankers would wave their magic wands over the shoe boxes each year and magically make the money increase by 5% or more. The way they did was to 'borrow' money from their customers' accounts and lend this money to other customers who would pay large amounts of interest to the bank for this privilege.

In those days, there were many branches where customers could go in and have a nice chat with the bank manager, who would actually know their customers. The current infatuation with identification checks wasn't really necessary as the staff knew who you were.

In digitally advanced countries, such as New Zealand, you don't need any cash as almost everything can be purchased with a debit card, including buying a halibut from the back of a travelling fishmonger's van. It can't be too long before cash is no longer required. Even in less digital countries, most transactions can be carried out online, with the result that the number of branches where you can go and chat with staff who know you is reducing rapidly.

The back-room-wizards who used to increase our bank accounts by 5-10% each year seem to have lost their magic powers and yet bankers still require trucks to carry home their annual bonus. But what if we should pop along to the remaining bank branches not staffed by robots and demand our money? This is referred to as a run on the bank and would cause the banks to crash because the money we put in our shoe boxes is not longer there as it has been invested in other projects but, unlike in earlier days, these projects no longer seem to make any money, or at least they don't make money for the customers, only for the bankers.

So the main reason we put money into banks would appear to be to pay the inflated salaries of the bankers as there appear to be few benefits to the customer. In fact, are banks just big Ponzi schemes? According to Wikipedia, a Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organisation, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned through legitimate sources.

If we can do everything digitally and the bankers are unable to pay us interest do we really need banks or bankers? Could bankers be released into the world to go and do something useful with their lives and, if so, what could they do?

Parking fines

Rants I have rabbited on about fines before but on the 12th June 2016 the editorial in Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post called for the raising of parking fines as a means to relieve some of our traffic problems as the current level of fine is too low and does not act as a deterrent. This was in response to a week long crackdown on parking offenders in Central. Of course, once the week was over it was unlikely that the problem would be fixed.

So this is why we need to make a penalty that has some impact. To someone on $20,000 per month a fine of $1500 is a deterrent, to someone on $200,000 per month it is merely an irritation. With the high cost of parking there are plenty of people who consider it is actually more economical to pay the occasional parking fine than to put the car in car park.

The problem with flat rate fines is that they penalise the poor much more than they penalise the rich. This is both unreasonable as well as being ineffective. In Scandinavia fines are means tested, as they are in a number of European countries. An example that gained publicity in 2015 was of a man in Finland travelling at 65mph in a 50mph zone who was fined 54,000 Euros, about HK$470,000. He had an income of 6.5 million euros and was fined accordingly.

If a means tested fine is too complicated, and you can imagine how many 'rich' people actually have very low declared incomes, we may consider alternative penalties that are fair, or equally unfair, to all sections of society. Even driving bans are unfair as the rich can just hire a driver. We need a bit of imagination but, unfortunately, the laws and those who enforce them in the courts are not exactly short of a bob or two.

It is time that we looked for alternative ways to penalise wrongdoers than to issue fines as our current systems offers freedom to flout the law to those who can afford it.

Gorillas

Rants Can someone tell me the last recorded human death caused by a gorilla? Someone....someone....? No, I thought not. All those David Attenborough wildlife programmes with gorillas, how many times has a silverback shown actual physical violence even to another gorilla? A lot of posing and bluster but have any serious blows been delivered? I once heard that if faced with an angry gorilla you should back away slowly and gracefully as turning and running could well result in you being chased and receiving a hefty thump in the back. Chimps, ok, I accept that chimps are aggressive and dangerous, rather like humans really, but gorillas?

If Cincinnati was in Europe, New Zealand, Japan, in fact almost any civilised country rather than in the USA, would the gun have been the method of first resort in rescuing the little brat who trespassed on Harambe's territory? The experts say that a tranquiliser dart wasn't an option as the gorilla 'may' have reacted badly to it. 'May' have indeed but you don't know until you have tried and the gun would have remained a pretty instantaneous way to sort things out if the poor chap had taken exception to being darted. Not even a warning shot.

But were any other approaches considered or is our imagination restricted to the use of firearms? It is interesting to watch the similar incident from 30 years ago at the Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey where everything was very calm and Jambo the gorilla was clearly protecting the injured boy. In this week's case Harambe showed concern but looked undecided as to what he should do but clearly lacked the evil Goldfinger leer one associates with those considering dismemberment.

One has to accept that the gentle giant would have had no trouble in despatching the brat had he wished but surely he deserved more of a chance than he was given. I didn't notice the keepers popping into the enclosure to divert his attention or have a man-to-man chat to reason with him. Maybe he could have been distracted with a bubble machine or an impromptu performance of the death scene from Camille. Anything but the gun. But if the gun was the correct approach surely they hit the wrong target.

Lots of questions to be asked here. Many people argue that zoos have no place in the modern world and that animals should be allowed to live in their own protected habitat. Sounds like a reasonable argument until you look at all the other animals desperately trying to cling onto life in their protected natural habitats, like the rhinos and elephants in Africa and orang-utans in Asia. Fat lot of use the protection is there. Unfortunately money will always come first so if it is a choice between protecting an animal's habitat or protecting the lifestyle and wealth of human beings the habitat is always going to come second, just as the choice between the life of a magnificent, gentle endangered silverback comes second to a child of which there is no shortage. I know which I'd rather have in my house.

No one seems to have thought of sending a message of condolence or apology to the family of the bereaved. I can only hope that the negligent mother and wandering child may one day be repentant enough to make a genuine contribution to protecting what is left of the world's dwindling population of wonderful gorillas. As for the zoo, they really need to have serious look at their responsibilities. The only party that appears to have done nothing wrong is Harambe. He must be wondering how he could have handled things differently to have achieved a better outcome.

Wealth gap

Rants Denmark is the happiest country in the world. Reasons given for this suggest that having a welfare state providing free health care, and other benefits, and a relatively small wealth gap compared to other countries are significant factors. This made me think about the values society puts on the work that people do.

My first thought would be that we would reward those who are most useful to society and possibly give credit to those who put themselves at risk on behalf of others. But a moment's thought makes you realise that this is far from the case. This was made very clear to me when I was living in New Zealand at the time of the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. I imagine myself trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building and after three days in darkness without food and drink I heard a voice calling to me, "Hi, my name's Clive, I'm a stockbroker." This would not fill me with confidence and neither would a host of other highly paid professions nor, to be fair, would I raise my hopes too high on hearing the voice of Barry the hairdresser.

And once everyone has been extricated from the rubble and we look round at the devastation, what do we need? Do we need bankers and lawyers or do we need people who can saw a plank of wood in half and wire a plug? I categorise myself amongst the useless as, living on a farm in Otago at that time, I was surrounded by loads of practical people who could provide food for themselves and others while making a mobile phone out of a piece of number 8 wire.

Disasters are extreme cases but let's look at everyday life. Does the average accountant put themselves or the general public at risk on a daily basis? Not the accountants I know but your average bus driver does. So we are quite happy to put someone who may not even have a university degree behind the wheel of a 9 tonne bus and send him careering round the streets. Each year there will be accidents involving buses knocking down nuns carrying babies who later die from their hideous injuries and the driver is jailed for manslaughter. On a daily basis the bus driver is paid a pittance, risks killing and maiming the general public and losing their freedom while the accountant only risks lead poisoning from chewing their pencil.

Occasionally the poor downtrodden workers take exception to being poor and downtrodden and take strike action. When the garbage disposal workers, or public hygiene executives as they are probably referred to these day, stop work it's not long before the streets pile up with refuse and the public gets annoyed and demands action. If all the auditors decide to go on strike how long will it be before the public are out on the streets protesting?

We feel the need to reward those who study hard at school and go on to take up one of the professions. If people have studied hard, spent three or four years at university then gone through the junior ranks to really learn what they are doing it is right to reward them with a hefty pay cheque. Most people would consider it unfair if the guy cleaning the public toilets was paid as much as a barrister. There are exceptions of course and the fattest cats are likely to be business people rather than professional people anyway, with or without an MBA.

Where the wealth gap causes most resentment is not so much in the different lifestyle that money can buy but in the injustice that money can buy. At the simplest level, let's look at parking fines. Here in Hong Kong we have a problem with cars parked illegally in the streets of Central. If the police catch you and give you a ticket you need to pay a fine. With manpower shortages many people think that the risk of being caught is acceptable so that paying the parking fines works out cheaper than trying to park in a multi-storey. Some suggest that the way to deter people is to double the fine. But what would that do? Many of the cars causing the problem are company cars and fines probably go down as a business expense and doubling the fine is hardly likely to be a deterrent.

People also suggest a congestion charge to cut down the number of cars in Central. That might deter those with less money but it would not deter the fat cats even if they had to pay out of their own pockets. Fines, particularly fixed ones, are an unfair punishment, be it for traffic or any other offence as they hurt the poor offender much more than the rich. Or at least they do in most countries. In Finland, and, I believe, other Scandinavian countries, fines are means tested. A story from March 12, 2015 tells of a businessman fined 54000 euros for travelling 30% above the speed limit . Now that's a deterrent.

In order to try to reduce the wealth gap some countries have tried to put a cap on salaries so that a CEO would be limited to, say, no more than 12 times the salary of the lowest paid worker. Switzerland held a referendum with exactly that proposal but the idea was heavily defeated. One argument often rolled out when discussing excessive executive pay is that if companies were restricted in what they could offer it would reduce their competitiveness. However, such a cap would not prevent the companies from paying their top executives more as long as they increased the pay of their work force.

And then there's bonuses and golden handshakes. A CEO joins a company on a huge salary and in addition receives huge annual bonuses that amount to more than the people at the bottom of the food chain earn in a lifetime. And when the CEO fails to increase the company profits by 10% per month they are given severance pay amounting to many more millions. The story of Dan Price, the CEO who cut his salary so that he could pay a minimum salary of US$70K to his staff is a rare positive. He questions which is more important, the boss or the workforce. Can one exist without the other - which would you rather lose, your head or your body? Good man, let's hope he sets a trend.

The public sector argues that it needs to pay salaries comparable to the private sector or risk losing their most talented people. Sounds like a reasonable argument until you see the constant public dissatisfaction with the performance of these highly paid people. In New Zealand, for example, NZ$100,000 (about US$67000) would be considered by most to be a reasonable amount of money and would provide a decent standard of living. So when you see public sector employees earning $300,000, $400,000 or more and still not appearing to do a great job you have to ask if you could have hired someone equally incompetent for $200,000.

Each of these instances may not be the end of the world but it is the combination of so many factors that make the wealth gap grow and develops further dissatisfaction. I am sure others can offer some imaginative solutions and there will be those who would argue that the wealth gap is not important so long as everyone has somewhere to live and enough to eat. I don't think many would argue that we should all be paid the same, that was tried in Communist states and did not prove to be a resounding success, but in 1965 CEOs in USA earned around 20 times that of their workers, now they earn around 300 times more. I find it hard to see how that can be justified. Even if economists argue that it is economically justifiable it is not morally justifiable and I would hope that still matters to a lot of people.

Noise

Rants When you live in a city of the size and population density of Hong Kong you can expect a bit of noise. What I don't like is all the unnecessary noise which people either accept as part of life or have grown so accustomed to it that they seem oblivious to the bedlam that surrounds them. Despite having been here almost 30 years I still can't switch off to these irritations. I wish I could. So what sort of noise am I referring to?

Last Saturday I took the bus out to Pak Tam Chung which is on the edge of Sai Kung Country Park, when of the most scenic parts of Hong Kong. PTC has hills, trees, rivers, a few houses, a car park and a kiosk where you can buy food from a very pleasant couple who are consistently friendly and helpful. I like to go out there and unwind whenever I can. I buy a coffee and some very tasty instant noodles, set up a table and chair and sit down to enjoy the peaceful environment and knock off the daily Sudoku puzzle.

Unfortunately PTC is a convenient destination for coach tours. So there I was, happy as could be with noodles dribbling down my chin when the onslaught began. At least two coach loads of travellers from who knows where disgorged themselves into the area outside the kiosk, formed queues for the toilets and spoke very loudly, either amongst themselves or on their mobile phones. But while it destroyed my tranquility that was not the main problem. What really makes me cringe are the tour guides who wander round marshalling their troops, yelling instructions through portable amplifiers. Why? I don't understand why they can't give out instructions before the passengers get off and do they really need to say so much? You can see a similar effect whenever you give someone a microphone. Once they have the microphone they feel the need to say something - at length - as can be heard at many sporting events these days where every nanosecond gap in play has to be filled with shrill voices cajoling the crowd to be excited.

Another pet noise hate is construction work. I am sure other tools are available but my ears tell me there are only two tools, regardless of the size of job and they are the pneumatic drill and the metal hammer. I get home from a hard day's work and just want to relax for a while and someone in an indeterminate number of floors above me gets their pneumatic drill out of the bedside cupboard and starts to redesign their flat. I emphasised the metalness of the hammer. Whenever anyone hammers anything here it always seems to require a metal hammer to thump bits of metal with the accompanying high decibel results. In other places people might think of making efforts to deaden the sound using any of the obvious methods that could be employed but clearly that is not the way of doing things here.

Hong Kong building sites amaze visitors with their total reliance on bamboo scaffolding. The builders then clamber all over the scaffolding and peer inside your flat. Unlike the tour guides the builders are not wired up to amplfiers or other electronic devices and so communication up and down the scaffolding is carried out by a more traditional method - shouting.

Thinking of shouting, I had a pleasant trip to Lamma island a few weeks ago and on the return ferry I was able to enjoy sitting outside at the back of the ferry. Near to me was a group comprising of two or three families from the mainland and the group contained three children. The eldest was probably 8 or 9, a big lad who seemed to be the epitome of the little emperor syndrome that has come about in China partly as a result of the one child policy. The parents were keen to relax a bit and chat amongst themselves while the children watched the sea go by but while they did so they kept up a barrage of commentary with the eldest lad having outbursts of shouting which were ignored by the mothers. To give them their due they did start to notice the looks that other passengers were giving them and we were then able to observe the cringeworthy performance of mother trying to point out the error of the lad's ways only for the boy to shout even louder. For some parents the one child policy was far too generous.

But the noise irritation that is most prevalent and noticeable on a daily basis is the car horn. No laws here about not sounding your horn after 10pm or when there's an R in the month. No, you can sound your horn as often as you like and for as long as you like. If a car waiting at traffic lights hesitates for a second when the lights go green you can guarantee they will be honked. A delay of more than a few seconds will result in extended blasts with drivers leaning on their horns for minutes at a time. But what does it achieve? Are traffic jams cleared more quickly if people sound their horns. And who hears these rude toots, is it just the offending people who are causing delays? Of course not. As a resident of a flat on the main road through Happy Valley I can inform drivers that the noise they make in the street below carries very well up to my flat.

I can't expect everyone to be quiet to keep me happy but I can expect people to behave a little less selfishly and to spare a moment to think what effect your behaviour has on other people.

Hong Kong housing

HK harbour

In a recent article in the SCMP Alex Lo drew attention to the fact that there are civil servants earning $300,000 per month whose responsibilities seem to be somewhat less than a traffic warden. We also read numerous letters referring to the acute housing shortage. The proposed solution offered by our overpaid leaders is generally to suggest we should build more houses. This exemplifies the lack of creativity stemming from our education system as the average $10,000 a month worker could have come up with the same answer.

So let’s look at the housing problem in a different way. I am sure we can all agree that the main aim is to reduce the demand for houses but the problem is not that we have too few houses but that we have too many people. When park managers have a glut of animals that are upsetting the balance of nature they carry out a cull. We could adopt a similar approach to provide a swift solution to the housing shortage; the main problem being how to decide on who to cull.

An obvious starting point would be the homeless but for a longer term solution we could slaughter the democrats or anyone who votes DAB. This arbitrary selection might be considered unfair by some, depending on your political leanings, so the government could hold a referendum or setup an elimination committee of 1200 who could decide on our behalf. While some might consider this as draconian and undemocratic it would provide an environmentally friendly solution to the housing shortage, particularly if we recycle the results of the cull in the form of animal feed or to help fuel the power stations to keep all the Teslas running.

So there you can see the benefit of a liberal western education, a solution to today’s problems that is cheap, fast and effective and would leave the country parks unscathed. Can our leaders come up with a better idea?