Hemlock's Diary
1-7 January 2006
Tue, 3 Jan
Clutching pale blue Inland Revenue Department envelopes in their rabbit-fur mittens, Hong Kong’s grand total of 17 salaries tax payers put on a brave face as they glide down the Mid-Levels Escalator this morning and prepare to start 2006 by kissing farewell to a considerable amount of their hard-earned wealth.  And where, I can’t help wondering, will my contribution go this year?  Will the Government use it to subsidize
parking spaces for Mercedes-owning leeches in public housing estates?  Or will officials spend it on ugly and unnecessary infrastructure to channel the cash into the pockets of the construction industry and Mr Li Ka-shing’s cement supply cartel – or ‘create jobs’?  Or will it end up in the vast pot of Civil Service allowances, for dedicated bureaucrats in the Education Department to fritter away on their spotty brats’ private school fees in England? 
”Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  How much did the US Treasury spend carving that onto their grand neo-classical headquarters on Washington DC’s Lafayette Square?  What slogan should their counterparts in the Big Lychee, the land of taxation without representation, engrave on Wanchai’s Revenue Tower, the hideous monument to Government architects’ malevolence, incompetence and tastelessness?  “Thanks, suckers!” wouldn’t cost much.

Wed, 4 Jan
Over breakfast of congee at the Foreign Correspondents Club, I ask delectable Administrative Officer Winky Ip for the latest governmental gossip.  She thinks for a few seconds.  “Well,” she starts, “the administration’s planning to privatize non-means-tested student loans.”  To me, coquettishness does not compensate for tedium, and as Winky drones on about selling current outstanding loans and outsourcing future ones, my eyes start to feel heavy.  Her voice fades away, and I fall into a pleasant dream, in which I am somewhere warm and dark.  Back in the womb, perhaps.  But all too soon it is over – and violently, my forehead being pulled up by the fingers of what I soon see is an alert FCC waitress.  Hot rice porridge dribbles down my face onto my chin.  “Obviously,” Winky is saying, “we have to maintain the principle that no-one should be denied an education through lack of means.”  She looks at me for a few seconds.  “You should be careful,” she warns me.  “I knew someone who drowned just like that, in a bowl of
juk.”  Before I can ask her what she was lecturing the poor wretch about at the time, she leans forward with a grin.  “Oh, I nearly forgot,” she tells me.  “Happy New Year!”

WHAT COULD sound tawdrier than a Macau-Australian casino consortium of Stanley Ho and (the late) Kerry Packer?  Singapore continues to
weed out the riffraff in its search for clean and wholesome gambling operators.  It’s like looking for a virgin in a brothel, a literate on a professional sports team, or an uncorrupt official in Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila. 

In her
2006 forecast, Cathy Holcombe predicts that “Singapore will become a major casino tourism destination, to the neglect of Macau,” which, with its Portuguese old-world charm and neighbouring factory sprawl is, to use economists’ jargon, “stinky.”  The truth is, the Lion City has no option.  Its government has squandered the people’s savings on investments in once-‘high-tech’ industries that turned out to be commodity manufacturing activities best located in China.  Being boring, small and irrelevant, the place lacks the broad and deep professional clusters that make Hong Kong Asia’s hub for financiers, traders, lawyers, accountants, PR floozies and other masters of the 21st Century universe.   Beyond its chewing gum-free, concrete shores, the Southeast Asian jungles seethe with blowpipe-wielding Muslim Malays, patiently waiting for the day when they storm the gates and give the arrogant Chinese city-state the sacking, looting and ravaging it has long deserved.  Meanwhile, its lobotomized citizenry – the dictatorial leadership’s only success story – dumbly and dutifully awaits the latest instructions on breeding from Lee Kwan-yew’s National Eugenics Agency.  It’s their last hope.  The desperate hunt for the least seedy, grubby and tacky manager of gambling dens continues.
Thurs, 5 Jan
Another day.  Another envelope.  Another tax.  Left by the Filipino elves where I will see it before I leave my apartment in Perpetual Opulence Mansions this morning – a demand for Government Rates.  But this is not just any old bill for a slice of my flat’s rentable value from the blood-sucking, serving-the-community-with-pride parasites of the Civil Service.  No.  This time, the scrounging bureaucrats flaunt their tyranny in their victims’ faces.  ‘160 Years of Vampirism’, they announce to the world, as if this is something to celebrate.  ‘Depriving honest, law-abiding property owners of their wealth since 1845.’ 

What are revenues from this archaic levy used for, assuming there are a few pennies left over after paying officials’ salaries and air-conditioning allowances?  Could some of the funds, by any chance, be used to buy and maintain street lighting equipment?  I march over to the window and lean out over the Mid-Levels street below.  “I know you’re out there!” I roar.  “You’ll be hanging from lampposts before long!  Your public-sector envelope logo designing days are numbered!”

IN THE conference room on the top floor of S-Meg Tower, the Big Boss smiles and gently fingers the ceramic three-legged toad as he surveys his senior management team sitting obediently before him.  “I trust you’re all happy with your bonuses this year,” the smug tycoon intones.  Mainland fixer Freddy Mao, the spotty Chief Accountant, Ms Doris Pang the ex-Gestapo Human Resources Manager, Ms Lu the buck-toothed Company Secretary and the others put on their best ‘satisfied’ faces and nod just enough to be noticeable.  I assume a toned-down version of my special ‘inane leer’, to denote broad contentment in principle, tempered by dismay that a not-so-modest proportion of the sum has been instantly and brusquely swiped from my hands to feed the world’s most arrogant, overmanned and overpaid Civil Service. 

In recognition of his dynamism and strategic vision, the Big Boss was awarded a hefty bonus by S-Meg Holdings’ Directors.  What are cousins, brothers-in-law and offspring of parents’ old friends for?  It must have made a change from discussing race horses during the Board meeting.  Not that he needs the money.  As head of the family firm, he rakes in zillions in dividends every six months.  I cast my mind back many years to a time when we were all poorer but happier and 85 cents seemed a lot for a can of San Miguel from 7-Eleven.  I remember imagining, in my naďve, juvenile way, that it would only be fair for tycoons to pay tax on such income.  The passage of years, the accumulation of a portfolio of wealth-creating assets and the experience of wading knee-high through interim and annual shareholders’ payouts clarifies one’s thinking on the sanctity of capital gains wonderfully.  

Back in the gwailo’s lair, I ponder the commemoration of the fact that these excise-collecting vermin have been at it in Hong Kong since 1845.  That was the year of the birth of Ludwig II of Bavaria – the toffee-making, Wagner-worshiping
lunatic king who built ridiculous, fairy-tale castles.  Who could imagine, 160 years later in Hong Kong, using taxpayers’ money for such a thing?
Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman

Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don't take it all
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman

If you drive a car, I'll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I'll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet.

Don't ask me what I want it for
If you don't want to pay some more
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman

Now my advice for those who die
Declare the pennies on your eyes
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman
And you're working for no one but me.

Taxman The Beatles
Fri, 6 Jan
I run my fingers along the bookshelf in my office.  Here it is!  The classic 1999 report,
Between Third World and First, in which then-Nomura economist Bill Overholt calculated that a typical Hong Kong middle class family pays a 40 percent tax rate, if you factor into it the excessive proportion of their income they must pay for a home as a result of the Government policy of keeping land, which is all nationalized, in artificially short supply.  This same policy allows the state to divert significant public wealth into ugly vanity projects, white elephants and cronyistic free lunches without visibly spending actual money, thus maintaining the fiction of small government. 

Along with the highly popular anniversary of Government Rates demands, Hong Kong celebrates the 160th consecutive year of being named the
solar system’s freest economy.   I recall the time a few years ago when, as a punishment of some sort, the Big Boss sent me to represent him at a function honouring the Big Lychee’s achievement in yet again winning the Heritage Foundation-Wall Street Journal World’s Grooviest Tax Jurisdiction award.  It was at the Mandarin Hotel, if memory serves.  I lingered around a group of bespectacled, PhD-laden East Coast types whose precocious wisdom and knowledge of virtually everything in the universe was propelling them up the ranks of Dow Jones – where some of them have sadly since found that ‘virtually everything in the universe’ does not include media business management.

Everyone clutched their compulsory glass of lime soda, made with nasty artificial Rose’s juice, stirred with a stick so the fizz has gone, and wrapped in a paper napkin.  On a platform at one end of the room, a late middle-aged man who was as forgettable as he was important introduced himself as being from the Heritage Foundation’s HQ and heaped absurdly lavish praise upon libertarian paradise Hong Kong.  Tung Chee-hwa stood to one side, grinning, and then came forward to mumble some inane expression of gratitude, apparently oblivious to the fact that the Washington-based institute is a leading exponent of the
Death-to-Chinese-Commie-Ratbags approach to international affairs.  The think tank boss and Tofu-for-Brains then pranced around each other with their tongues hanging out and their tails wagging furiously, sniffing each other’s posteriors, while everyone else looked at their watches.