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Let the Best Serve Hong Kong

In a recent radio programme, 'Letter to Hong Kong', aired by RTHK, I said that the immediate shortage of skilled professionals in certain areas of the IT and financial services fields is apparent for all to see. However, Hong Kong is not competitively positioned to attract these skilled professionals. And a proactive immigration policy is clearly necessary.

The need to review our immigration policy has become increasingly important, especially as the IT field is gearing up for the upcoming auction of the four 3G licences. Successful bidders are expected to roll out quickly the huge infrastructures required to enable a head start in this new telecommunications field.

The Government clearly wants Hong Kong to be a leader in this sector and to maintain our status as the regional telecommunications hub. But with Europe and many other developed countries in Asia Pacific all racing to introduce 3G mobile phone services simultaneously, the world-wide scramble for skilled professional engineers, technicians and marketing personnel has become intense.

I do realise that many Internet services are finding it difficult to survive and if redundancies in this area occur, they are likely to come from design, script writing and reporting. Some skills are more in demand than others and it serves to illustrate the need for the Hong Kong Government to define precisely the types of professional qualification and skill needed to prevent misuse of our immigration policy. If the Government ignores this advice, it may result in the importation of cheaper labour, of which there is already an abundant supply.

With regard to the financial services sector, Hong Kong's market is a fairly mature. In the past decade, the number of major Hong Kong corporations outside the territory has increased. Some are already international players with their main source of income being derived from non-local activities. Others have grown regionally, often with offices in China. As such, the managerial and financial skills required to keep operations running smoothly from Hong Kong headquarters can hardly be satisfied by locally trained personnel. The same can be said for the professional services sector. As such, attracting talented overseas experts who are knowledgeable aobut other overseas markets and regulatory frameworks is clearly warrented to meet demand.

We must realise that the potential for the internal growth of Hong Kong-based corporations is already limited. To continue growing, or just to keep pace with the growth of neighbouring cities such as Shanghai, Shenzen and Singapore, indicates that there is no room for complacency in our competitive business world. We must not only recognise our competitors' strengths and abilities to adjust to market changes but must also try to match and eventually pre-empt their every move. And this applies to attracting overseas professionals to Hong Kong.

I think the worldwide trend of attracting overseas talent is irreversible as business communities become increasingly globalised. Indeed, Hong Kong has thrived on an open-door policy for overseas skilled professionals in the past. At the dawn of China's accession to the WTO, Hong Kong must adjust its recruitment focus and look closer to home.

Although I can see the necessity of admitting Mainland professionals, I am concerned with the way the Government is explaining this policy to the public.

The criteria for an applicant's entry eligibility under the 'Admission of Mainland Professionals' scheme appears to be tentative and vague. The areas he or she needs to satisfy are: (1) have basic academic qualifications and work experience; (2) a confirmed offer of employment; and (3) minimal remuneration broadly commensurate with the prevailing market level for professionals. If this is the case, job opportunities for IT and financial services professionals will be threatened.

In implementing this scheme, the Government must bear in mind that this is a sensitive issue for local workers. Also, the Government will need to consider the way in which Mainland workers are perceived. For a long time, the majority of immigrant workers from the Mainland have been mostly unskilled.

It will take some effort to persuade people to recognise that Mainlanders are now 'skilled professionals'.

To use the words 'Mainland Professionals' is deceptive as in reality we may not always be looking for 'special' professional skills. We may be just looking for a thorough understanding of the way specific Mainland corporations work; or someone with the right connections; or someone with a native command of Putonghua. Whatever the reason, Mainland professionals will be recruited to help Hong Kong firms compete and eventually deliver more sophisticated professional services to Mainland corporations.

To alleviate the anxieties of our local workforce, a sensible limit should be set on the number of eligible applicants in each job category, as well as establishing a mechanism for regular review. These reviews should be conducted in a transparent manner and supported by independent, systematic surveys on the manpower needs for each skill category. And the results should be made public.

For the 'Admission of Mainland Professionals' scheme to move forward, the Government, the business community and our workforce must trust each other. The scheme's potential problem areas include not having proper checks in place to verify precise numbers and qualification requirements; over-selling of the scheme by Government officials without clear definition of the types of skill needed, or a full analysis of the likely impact on the local workforce; low entrance requirements without safeguards against possible abuse; and under estimating the demand and supply for Mainland professionals.

Casting the net too wide could result in a problem equivalent to the '85,000 housing target blunder'.

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Adapted from a 'Letter to Hong Kong' written by Eric Li, previously aired on RTHK. Eric Li is the Accountancy Functional Constituency Representative on LegCo. His website can be found at http://www.ericli.org

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