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July 25th, 2011:

Hong Kong seeks CSI sleuths on mysteries

South China Morning Post – 25 July 2011

Where our school places and air quality study went

The American television show CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) has got to be one of the most successful franchises of all times with the original Las Vegas-based one giving rise to spin-offs in New York and Miami, all three having run for multiple seasons.

The formula is basically the same: bodies are found, painstaking detective work follows, perpetrators are identified. A link is sometimes found between what were initially thought to be unrelated crimes.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has many other successful shows under his belt. I thought of him when considering two major economic crimes in Hong Kong: the first is the disappearance of more than 4,300 places in international schools, and the second is the loss of our air quality objectives.

Let us set the scene for each.

Every international chamber of commerce in Hong Kong reports that the shortage of places in international schools is now a serious barrier to foreign companies investing in our city and creating in the process thousands of jobs for local people. The senior executives who would head the operations decline to move to Hong Kong until they can be assured that they can bring their families with them.

They soon find that landing a place for their children is incredibly difficult. Every good international school has a waiting list a mile long. The horror stories are endless: Macau schools advertising here so that either the children or the working parents have to engage in a daily or weekly commute; families basing themselves in Singapore with the main breadwinner working in Hong Kong and returning “home” only at weekends.

Some companies have even been forced to reconsider their entire business strategy and locate vital business units in other locations.

The government accepts that the situation is tight, but in recent articles and statements Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung and his officials said the occupancy of places in international schools was at 88 per cent. That is another way of saying that 12 per cent of the places are vacant.

According to the government, 48 international schools including those of the English Schools Foundation in Hong Kong provide 36,150 primary and secondary places. The 12 per cent vacancy rate suggests more than 4,300 of these places are still available, but no-one seems able to find them.

A mystery on this scale cries out for a top detective to investigate it. The CSI team should be able to get to the bottom of it. It is a similar story with air quality objectives. The present set were drawn up, literally, in another century when Hong Kong was still a refugee town with hundreds of thousands of people living in squatter huts.

But now we are one of the world’s most advanced and wealthy cities. We even call ourselves “Asia’s world city”. Yet the air we all breathe every day is absolutely filthy. The pollution is a serious health hazard and yet another disincentive for potential investors to set up here. Why would you base yourself in Hong Kong, where the air might kill you or your asthmatic child, when you can go somewhere else that might not be quite as good logistically, but at least you won’t need an oxygen mask to survive?

Some years back, the government commissioned the Arup Group to draw up more modern and appropriate air quality standards. This exercise was to be followed by drawing up an action programme to work towards achieving the new higher standards.

Arup apparently finished its work in 2009, but the resulting revised standards have disappeared. Rumour-mongers have suggested that publishing them would confirm publicly just how far away from decent modern standards we are and how many vested interests we would have to upset to achieve them. Perish the thought!

Another one for the laboratory sleuths. How about it, Jerry? Could you find time for a fourth version of CSI? Hong Kong needs your help.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.