Many, many moons ago, in what now seems a distant land forgotten by time, a financial secretary whose name no-one now remembers introduced an annual budget of such dazzling obtuseness that he became an utter laughing stock, and his wife and children had to walk around with paper bags over their heads so nobody would recognize them. Panicking as the full extent of his stupidity sunk in, he blurted out to the populace that he would give them all HK$6,000 each, so they would feel good, shut up, and just let it pass as if nothing had ever happened.
Predictably, the population was simultaneously enthusiastic, contemptuous and, when it came to tiresome details about the logistics involved in distributing the cash, intensely inquisitive. Some booked trips to exotic resorts, some planned purchases of the latest i-Thing, and a few of the scummier sort went around badgering family for loans to be repaid when the money was handed out. But the six grand never materialized, and as the eons passed, and generations of folk grew grayer and more absent-minded, the whole affair slowly seeped away from everyone’s consciousness. Occasionally, a little spark would flicker in the back of the mind upon hearing a word like ‘six’ or ‘thousand’ – but it would vanish again. At the most, people would briefly wonder whether something really happened, or had they dreamt it.
Then out of the blue one day, Treasury Undersecretary Julia Leung stood up in public and confirmed that the Great John Tsang Budget Disaster Hush Money Hand-Out was no myth but did indeed exist, and was definitely on the way. Furthermore, she assured us, families will be able to collect handouts of loved ones who register for the scheme but pass away before payment. This was no minor detail; it was fairly obvious, as memories of the chaotic budget announcement came back, that the way things were going a large proportion of us would probably not live to see, feel, fold and unfold, and smell the delightful aroma of the cash in our warm, clammy paws.
For those with powers of recall similar to those of our friend the elephant, an old episode from the dark depths of ancient history comes to mind. The Hong Kong government was replacing the old-style ID cards with new space-age ‘smart’ ones with microchips, so everyone could whiz through self-service immigration channels. That, many of us mused at the time, would be a major logistical exercise. Nearly everyone in the city would have to book a time to go to a processing centre, fill in forms, have fingerprints and photos taken, and endure all sorts of other impertinences, and go back a week later to collect the new magic high-tech card. Yet the authorities pulled it off, getting everyone to turn up, in batches, and have their new cards issued, smoothly, efficiently and painlessly – and with little or no fuss. Even a smile from the fetching Immigration Department girls in their smart uniforms.
So what has gone wrong? Why is a bureaucratic machine capable of re-issuing the entire population with new identity documents suddenly incapable of getting a cheque to each holder of aforementioned ID? “They don’t have everyone’s address” is no answer: they didn’t last time. Are they trying to delay it so we will all vote for the lank-haired, scrofulous Democratic Alliance for the Blah Blah of Hong Kong candidates at the District Council elections in November? (“Hello, please vote for us – we support the government that gave you six grand!”) Is it a ploy to make John Tsang appear even more idiotic and thus by contrast give Henry Tang an aura of high-IQ Chief Executive material? (In which case it’s still not enough.) Is it spiteful foot-dragging on the part of the bureaucrats who resent having to share part of their carefully amassed, jealously guarded, lovingly preserved fiscal reserves with presumptuous riffraff? And for those of us who live to eventually see it: what will it buy by then?