Macau’s new chief has a plan: don’t mess up

Farah Master pays more attention to Macau than any other Hong Kong-based journalist, SCMP included, and so we were pleased to see today that she has a thoughtful piece out on the “other SAR”. 

The timing is great. Hands up any reader that knew Macau was anointing a new Chief Executive this weekend? Didn’t think so.

Ho appears to be stepping into the job with gusto. Although initially reluctant to take a high-profile approach to his “campaign,” he has recently been a daily fixture on the front page of Macau Daily, constantly visiting local communities, pressing the flesh with leaders of grassroots associations and their rank-and-file alike. He has been able to do this, unlike his counterpart in Hong Kong, because he need not fear being petrol-bombed in public. Macau is a relative oasis of calm, even though it is a short hop across the bridge from the tinderbox of Hong Kong.

It’s not really fair to compare the two, however. If Carrie Lam had only Wan Chai to govern, her job would be a lot easier, too. Macau has less than a tenth of Hong Kong’s population. Nevertheless, it is inarguable that the people of Macau have seen the quality of their lives appreciate immeasurably since the Portuguese dumped it back on Beijing’s hands in 1999. There is little wonder they haven’t had the same fiery response as their Hong Kong counterparts to anything from the central government that might seem pushy, like the extradition bill.

For this, the casinos deserve some thanks. No, seriously. These companies, dominated by foreign investors, have been pillars of the community, even though they have been responsible for bankrupting more than one gambler – mostly from across the border – over the nearly 20-year run of their current concessions. 

List the ways, you say? Well, for a start, unlike business leaders of similar economic clout in Hong Kong, Macau’s casinos haven’t had the chutzpah to try to do a run-around on the local government. (Not more than once, at least.) They pay well. They provide career training. They arrange visits to elderly homes. They make ambitious, world-class art festivals happen at the drop of a hat. They bring mandopop king Jay Chou to perform there. Need we say more?

There are some things the casinos can’t do, of course. They can’t build world-class healthcare facilities, and they can’t get the trains to run on time, because those are jobs reserved for the people to whom the casinos pay 40% of their revenues in taxes. But pretty much everything else good about Macau’s development since 1999 is theirs to take much credit for. Edmund Ho was a genius for bringing them in within a couple of years after he became Macau’s first CE. One can only imagine what Hong Kong would be like today if its first CE had possessed the vision and courage to break up its property oligopoly in 1997.

Since 2009, Macau has had some challenges, to be sure. But that looks likely to change. Ho Iat Seng seems determined to address the perception that the executive branch has been less active over the past decade. He has already put forward all sorts of ideas for building better infrastructure and improving people’s livelihoods. He sounds like a go-getter. And he looks like one, too.

His Hong Kong counterpart had said she wanted to do the same thing back when she was campaigning for the job. She had talked about focusing on bread-and-butter stuff and putting aside the contentious issues that had seen her predecessor leave office after one term. Perhaps now she will have the opportunity to really do so. Ho is fortunate that he won’t be coming to the job under anything like the same pressure that she stepped into. And it could be said that he is fortunate to be able to see, thanks to her, what troubles lie ahead if he fails to deliver on his campaign pledges. 

Nevertheless, there is a sense in Macau that its best days are still ahead of it, and that the city is getting the leader it deserves.  Put this together with the gift of the Greater Bay Area masterplan, and we, too, see a long, clear runway ahead for the other SAR to enjoy a spectacular takeoff in the coming decade.

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