Bring on the evidence

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

Looking at the recently issued ‘Major Benchmarks of Macau’s Economic and Social Development (2009-2018)’, the new Chief Executive seems to be inheriting a positive legacy from his predecessor. Here is scenario one: overall and per capita GDP, foreign exchange, fiscal reserves and median monthly incomes are up; government spending on health care, education and social security is up; the number of doctors, nurses and hospital beds per 1,000 people is up; life expectancy is up; public housing is up. The picture looks rosy.

Now look at scenario two: over the same period, Macau’s budgetary revenue increased by 148 per cent but its budgetary expenditure increased by only 128 per cent. The number of criminal cases increased by over 15 per cent, and whilst some people await with joy, others question the installation of more surveillance cameras in 2020, with an estimated 4,200 by 2028. Macau’s population went up by 25 per cent to a staggering 667,000, added to which is the dubious achievement of welcoming some 40 million tourists in 2019 alone. From 2009 to 2018, per capita electricity consumption rose by over 30 per cent, the amount of waste water treated each day rose by 22 per cent, and incinerated solid waste rose by 65 per cent, i.e. Macau uses more and more. In a consumerist society we consume, devour and use up resources, creating more and more waste and pollution. Macau is a stomach, a furnace and a waste bin.

Which scenario do you choose? The rosy or the gloomy? Of course, both. So, is Macau’s development ‘working’ well?

How we judge achievement, progress and development is a function of the indicators we use. In an era of evidence-based accountability and decision making, the ‘what works’ agenda has moved beyond simplistic measures to a more complex, compound question: what works, for whom, in the presence and absence of which factors and conditions (singly or in combination), how, with what side effects, compared to what, taking which causal paths, how successfully, based on what and whose evidence and criteria, with what level of trustworthiness, and in whose eyes?

Apply this long question to Macau means interrogating the architecture of the Macau government’s key performance indicators. The government can take the upbeat scenario one and pat itself on the back for a job well done. But move beyond the patricians. Ask the rest of Macau’s population and you get a much more nuanced view: progress here; retrogression there.

Just walk down Macau’s streets. Alongside the glitzy malls, resorts and hotels we see evidence of spoilage, squalor, pollution and environmental decay. Talk to the young and hear how their aspirations have become forlorn dreams. Talk to the sick, passively queuing at the hospitals. Talk to shift workers who see their children for only a few minutes each day. Talk to shop workers, cleaners and security staff whose earnings consign them to sharing accommodation in order to make ends meet. Macau is not ‘working’ for many of them. How to make Macau’s development ‘work’?

Development needs talent, and Macau hears endless mantras of talent development. But what talent-spotting and bringing on of local talent takes place in Macau’s public services, and with what effects? Where and who are the change agents in Macau, and bringing changes to whom and to what?

How much real progress been made in moving beyond Macau’s risk-averse, powerful agents of the status quo, with Macau becoming a branch outlet for the unfettered dominant ideology, indeed hegemony, of all-pervasive materialism, with monochrome values and agendas issuing from outside and inside Macau? Who is benefiting most from the ‘developments’ in Macau? Who are the winners and losers in Macau’s race towards a service economy with its engine room of gaming and tourism? What steps is Macau taking really to diversify, promote sustainable living, enhance and protect its environment, and serve its local population as much as its visitors? Has Macau’s quality of life improved as tourists multiply?

In an era of ‘what works’ in accountability, policy making and decision making, for whom is Macau ‘working’, and based on what and whose evidence? What prospects are in store for a wider, richer, more enabling vision of Macau than its present default position of more and more of everything, reinforced by a received agenda of consumerism? Where is the evidence of progress as qualitative transformation and betterment?

A happy new year? Hmmm.