One of the delights of the annual budget talkfest is that the Financial Secretary of the day can hardly avoid the obligation to give unscripted replies to unexpected questions. With occasionally curious results.

Consider, for example, Mr Paul Chan (our current money wizard) on why Hong Kong has not followed some of the Singapore government’s efforts to revive the post-Covid tourist industry, which apparently include a special fund for the travel industry and direct grants to small enterprises.

Paul Chan radio 2023 Budget
Financial Secretary Paul Chan attends a radio programme on February 23, 2023, a day after he delivered the 2023 Budget. Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong’s tourism industry was quite different from Singapore’s, said Mr Chan, according to The Standard; “We are way more fun. We have natural mountains and tourists can also cross the border to the mainland.”

Natural mountains? We may think that setting Hong Kong up as more fun than Singapore is jumping a fairly low bar. Singapore is not most people’s idea of a fun palace. But the Lion City can hardly be accused of seducing tourists with artificial mountains. Or indeed with any mountains at all.

It is a bit strange that Mr Chan, who one might think had some responsibility for the condition of the tourism industry, could think of no more stunning attractions for visitors, or consolations for struggling travel agencies, than geographical features for which the government is not responsible.

While we undoubtedly have genuine mountains, moreover, Singapore also has an adjacent mainland to which visitors can resort. I am not sure that Johor is a great visitor magnet, but then Shenzhen is not most people’s idea of a tourism Mecca either.

Hiking Po Lo Shan aka Pineapple Mountain
Hong Kong’s “natural mountains.” File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP

This is harmless fun, perhaps. For a more serious item we can turn to Mr Chan’s performance in the Legislative Council Finance Committee meeting on his masterpiece, as reported in HKFP.

Legislator Tik Chi-yuen, who is the ONLY person in Legco not elected on a pro-government basis, had questioned the government’s sincerity in pursuing poverty alleviation, there being no allocation at all for this purpose in the budget. Under the circumstances, he said, it would be “very hard” for him to support the budget.

Mr Chan responded with a barrage of the usual platitudes, and then retired to his bunker:

“As a SAR official, I will not be intimidated. [Lawmakers] cannot use their vote of support or opposition to force me into doing something which I think would be inappropriate.”

I presume this was originally in Cantonese since The Standard’s version, while clearly of the same quote, is slightly different: “As an SAR official I will not be threatened. I won’t be coerced by votes – for or against – to do something that I don’t deem appropriate.”

Am I alone in thinking that this — in either version — is a bit over the top when presented with the possibility that one, and only one, of the 90 legislative councillors might abstain from voting in support of the budget?

Tik Chi-yuen
Lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen he meets the press on February 22, 2023 after the 2023 Budget address. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Given the way things are these days, it would be astonishing if an SAR official were intimidated in any way by the thought that anybody might not vote for anything he was doing. The government has nothing to worry about. The new electoral arrangements assure a comfortable — indeed overwhelming — majority is at its beck and call in the Legislative Council. Deliberative bodies which do not share this happy feature have been abolished or suspended indefinitely.

You have to wonder, really, why Mr Chan took the possibility of losing Mr Tik’s support so seriously. Are officials, in the interests of “happy Hong Kong stories”, now expected to ensure that all proposals are not just passed, but carried unanimously?

We may have natural mountains, but our political system is beginning to look a bit … shall we say, Singaporean?

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.