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12 December 2011    

Pushing frontiers
by President Tony F Chan     Published in the South China Morning Post - Opinion
 

Hong Kong is being outpaced by regional economies that are investing heavily in R&D for innovation, and some fresh thinking from the top is needed to get us back into the race
Tony Chan

A change in top leadership looms in Hong Kong, as does a critical choice in the future direction of its development. Long hooked on the thrills and spills of the property and equity markets, whose returns are short term and immediate, Hong Kong needs to ask itself whether it can continue to indulge in its comfortable one-dimensional economic thinking by brushing off the need for long-term strategy and economic diversity. Consider science and technology, for example.

Hong Kong needs to ask itself two crucial questions. First, why does the city need science and technology? It is a good way to diversify our economic base; with no natural resources, other than its people, science and technology innovation offers us a way to move up the value-added ladder and maintain our high standard of living. It can also use to its advantage the rise of the Chinese economy and its substantial investment in science and technology; it gives opportunities and hope for our younger generation; and, finally, why shouldn't affluent Hong Kong try to contribute to such an important part of human civilization?

None of the world's leading financial centers is willing to yield leadership in science and technology innovation to other cities. Shanghai is not yielding to Beijing. Instead, it is investing heavily to attract multinational R&D to its science parks. New York wants to compete with Silicon Valley; mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for proposals from leading science and technology universities around the world to build branch campuses in New York. And everybody in Hong Kong knows about Singapore. The objective conclusion is that either they are all foolish or they all see the future the same way.

The second question is: can Hong Kong do it successfully? The situation is much more favorable than even 20 years ago. First, we have the human capital. Our students have consistently ranked among the best in global science aptitude tests. Our universities are ranked among the best in Asia. Under "one country, two systems", we can use to our advantage China's national goal, embedded in its latest 12th five-year plan, to make science and technology a key component of national development. And I challenge anyone to find a region in China more favorable than Hong Kong and the rest of the Pearl River Delta in having a combination of top universities, large markets, a multitude of technology enterprises, rule of law, mature intellectual property protection, world-class infrastructure and an international city that is welcoming to global talent.

Other economies have successfully harnessed science and technology. Singapore's gross domestic product has grown by about 16 times over the last 30 years. Today, it is a hi-tech economy with the highest per capita GDP among the four Asian Tigers. Over the same period, South Korea's GDP has grown over 14 times, while Hong Kong's grew by about seven times. Forty years ago, Korea was a third-world economy. Today, it possesses many reputable global technology brands. Significantly, it is spending over 3 per cent of its GDP on R&D, and Singapore's spending will rise from the current 2.3 per cent to 3.5 per cent in 2015. The mainland will increase its current 1.8 per cent to 2.2 per cent in five years.

Shouldn't Hong Kong, with only 0.79 per cent of our GDP for research and development, follow suit?

The Hong Kong government has made some efforts to move forward on science and technology innovation. It has established the Innovation and Technology Commission and the Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, and has nurtured a Science Park of growing effectiveness. But what is missing is a clear signal from the top that the development of science and technology is of the utmost importance to the future of Hong Kong.

Increasing the percentage of R&D spending, say, to at least match the mainland's 2.2 per cent, would be a strong signal. In the early stages of science and technology development, the role of government is critical. Hong Kong can no longer continue to hide behind its self-congratulatory economic philosophy of "active non-intervention" when it comes to science and technology development.

We also need a high-level bureau for long-term strategic planning, with the necessary budget and authority. It must offer powerful incentives, in the form of tax rebates or deductions, patent laws, friendly incorporation regulations and land grants, to attract multi-nationals to set up their R&D labs in our city. In a highly competitive regional environment, the absence of government initiatives and incentives is tantamount to handicapping our people. We also need our government to enhance collaboration with the mainland, to ride on its substantial science and technology investment, talent and enterprises.

Finally, getting people excited about science and technology requires a culture change, involving parents, employers, investors and government leaders. Technology is not just something "created elsewhere"; we, too, can invent and adapt new technology for economic gain. We need to value innovation above exam performance. We must be ready to try, and have no fear of failure.

Do we want to be left by the wayside in the global science and technology race? Do we want to be 40 years behind South Korea and Singapore, or become the technological backwater of China? It would be a pity were that to happen, considering that conditions here are the envy of our competitors.

Tony Chan is president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
This is an edited excerpt of his recent speech at the university's Science and Technology Forum

 

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