【Source: Letter to Hong Kong – RTHK Radio 3】
Dear Poi Lam,
On the last day of meetings in my first year at the Legislative Council, we discussed two important issues today. One has to do with the government requiring single parents who are on our income maintenance program—Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme (CSSA) to become employed, a typical workfare policy that assumes the market is the answer to poverty alleviation. I must say that the logic is obviously flawed but I am amazed by how the government seems to not care about the social consequences of this unsound policy. I think it is how much savings the policy can realize that concerns our government the most.
The second issue has to do with a pretty straightforward request by persons with disabilities: to give them concessionary fares in public transport. You may wonder why we even have to discuss it at the Legislative Council since there shouldn’t be anything controversial about it. In an era of social integration and social inclusion, providing concessionary fares to persons with disabilities in public transport seem to be a common practice among all developed economies. Indeed, all European countries provide some kind of concessions in public transport to the disabled. Many countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and many others go even further by providing free rides or concessionary fares for persons who travel with the disabled. Even in Asia, disabled people travel with discounts in countries such as China, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and
Hong Kong, Legislator Leung Yiu Chung’s motion to call for such a policy was passed twice, in 2002 and 2003. What has happened since then? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In the meeting today, the government maintains that they will not subsidize any public transport operator. But the government also respects the independence of public transport operators and that their decisions on whether to provide concessionary fares to persons with disabilities are purely business decisions. Yes, business decisions are sacred in
Hong Kong. No one, not even the government, can challenge them. Or at least that is what the government wants us to believe.
I asked MTR, KCR, and the government one simple question: do you in principle support the provision of concessionary fares to persons with disabilities? None of them could give a definitive answer. In other words, they don’t really support it. I suppose it is a position of business decision. But it might be too embarrassing or politically undesirable to say no. MTR said they have already spent an exorbitant amount of money on improving the handicap accessibility of their facilities. KCR said they in principle support the provision of lower fares to everyone. Isn’t that nice? I for a moment thought KCR ought to enjoy the status of a charitable organization. The government‘s position is most puzzling. It does not want to provide any direct subsidy to transport operators and is worried about the legal implications under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance if concessions are granted only to a portion of the disabled, such as the recipients of Disability Allowance. How ironic it is for us to see the Disability Discrimination Ordinance being used by the government as an excuse to not help the disabled.
I asked further: since business decisions must be based on facts, what are the financial implications of providing concessions to persons with disabilities for MTR and KCR? The answer is no estimates are made at this time. According to the government’s own estimate, there are about 215 thousand persons with disabilities or about only 3% of the population that are aged 15 to 64. The proportions of children and the elderly to the population are about 21% and 12% respectively. Currently, concessions are granted to children, students, and the elderly. So what is the big worry as the population of the disabled is relatively much smaller than those who are already receiving concessions? Furthermore, MTR’s profit has been consistently high in the past three years with last year’s profit reaching 4.5 billion dollars. KCR, on the other hand has seen a significant drop in its profit from 2.1 billion to 0.4 billion dollars in the past three years primarily because of the West Rail. However, both of them are making a healthy profit and affordability of a fare concession does not seem to be an issue here.
If it is socially and politically desirable to give concessionary fares to persons with disabilities and that it is financially feasible to do so, why do MTR and KCR choose to stall the issue? The answer could lie in the question of whose responsibility it is to foot the bill. Both MTR and KCR agree that it is the government’s responsibility. The government thinks otherwise. But how can the government duck from its responsibility? Both MTR and KCR are public corporations with KCR being a wholly owned subsidiary of the government and MTR being owned by the government by more than 50%. Both boards are appointed by the government with government representatives as de facto members. In other words, the government is almost in complete control.
Talks are cheap. When it comes to promoting the integration of people with disabilities into society, our government has shamelessly claimed that they have done their very best. But when it comes to providing substantive assistance such as concessionary fares to persons with disabilities, no one wants to commit to anything. As public transport corporations, do MTR and KCR have any social responsibilities?
What can we do about it? For a government that is not answerable to its people, the only thing that will force them to move is tremendous social pressure. On July 3rd this year, more than 700 disabled persons and their family members participated in a rally inside the MTR Central Station. The action has caused some widespread attention to the issue. If the government continues to turn its deaf ear to the voices of the disabled, more social actions will come. As to what action we will take next, please let me keep it as a little secret from you for now.