Friday 25 October 2013

No room to make babies, say HK couples

Lack of space is one issue panel will try to tackle amid shrinking population
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 24 Oct 2013

ON ANY given night in Hong Kong, many of its streets are packed to the gills.

In the crowds are many couples who prefer to stay out after work - window-shopping or hanging out at cafes - than to go home and make babies.

Among them are software engineer Thomas Chiu, 31, and his girlfriend of three years.

"We've already agreed we will not consider getting married or having children until we can buy a home," Mr Chiu said. This will take another three years of disciplined saving, he reckoned.

For now, there is no room for intimacy at home.

"We live with our families. It's awkward," he added.

They are not alone.

A new survey out this week found more than 80 per cent of 559 respondents complaining that there is not enough space for sex - let alone children - in the city.

Veteran psychiatrist Ng Man Lun, vice-president of the Hong Kong Sex Education Association which helped conduct the poll, said it bears out what he had observed in 30 years of running a sex therapy clinic.

"Sex needs space to be performed. In Hong Kong, rooms are too small, there are parents and grandparents in the same space, and everything can be overheard in sub-divided flats."

The lack of privacy and living space is just one issue that dogs Hong Kong's population conundrum - and is also one that a government-appointed commission is seeking to tackle as it launches a four-month public consultation today on a policy paper for the way forward.

A shrinking population will inevitably lead to a shrinking labour force. The government estimates that in five years, Hong Kong will see a shortfall of 14,000 workers, based on assumptions that the city's economy expands at 4 per cent a year.

The city's total fertility rate (TFR) last year stood at 1.25 births per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Meanwhile, given longer lifespans, Hong Kong's 7.15 million residents are greying rapidly.

The number of people aged 65 and above is projected to rise to 30 per cent in 2041, up from 14 per cent last year. The median age will also go up from 42 years to 50.

To mitigate these challenges, a series of ambitious proposals - some of them controversial - are up for discussion.

Commission members tell The Straits Times that the proposed measures include extending statutory paternity leave beyond three days to possibly as long as six weeks.

The retirement age of 160,000 civil servants could be raised from today's 60 years. Such a move by the civil service, Hong Kong's biggest employer, would signal the private sector to do likewise.

Another proposal is to encourage Hong Kong- born children of mainland Chinese couples to move to the city. There are some 200,000 now living in the mainland. The number of school places would then be ramped up to accommodate them.

Also being considered are financial handouts a la baby bonuses, tax reliefs and paid childcare leave as well as subsidies for fertility treatment.

And in a nod to the issue of space, there is a proposal to give priority for public housing to young working couples, including those living overseas to encourage them to return home.

However, the problem will lie in getting the community's consensus on the proposals.

As a commission member, who declined to be named, acknowledged: "Many of these are politically sensitive, such as getting the children of mainlanders (to move) here.

"But the population problem is urgent, and what's important is that if we can start the conversation and try to agree on some ways forward, we can start planning the infrastructure."

Public housing priority for young couples could create unhappiness, given the long line of applicants who include the elderly. Longer paternity leave would also not please employers.

As for why Hong Kong is considering a baby bonus scheme, which has met with limited success in Singapore, demographer Paul Yip said it depends on how success is defined.

"Singapore does have some success in that without it, the TFR might have gone down even further," he said.

The Republic's TFR bucked a declining trend when it inched up to 1.29 last year from 1.2 in 2011, in what was called a "mini-Dragon Year effect".

Sociologist Alfred Chan said that over the next four months, the consultation effort will reach out to collect as many opinions as possible. Public forums, closed-door focus groups and e-mail submissions are in the offing.

Up for discussion
- Extending paternity leave from three days to possibly up to six weeks
- Raising the retirement age of civil service employees beyond the current 60 years
- Encouraging Hong Kong-born children of mainland couples to move over "as soon as possible"
- Providing baby bonuses, tax reliefs and paid childcare leave to create a more family-friendly environment
- Offering subsidies for fertility treatment
- Giving priority in public housing to young working couples, including those living overseas to encourage them to return home
- Giving mainland students who have obtained their degrees in Hong Kong more time to find work - up from one year currently to two years
- Providing better training for mainland migrants to enable them to enter the workforce


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