Two dates seem to attract the highest number of demonstrators to the streets of Macau: the MSAR Handover Anniversary Day and Labour Day. As a result, they are (relatively) important occasions for gauging the city’s political sentiments and identifying some topics that seem more keenly felt by various social groups. In a way, this is the closest the city’s political system comes to a genuine public discussion. In line with the ‘tradition,’ several parallel demonstrations took place last week.
Not surprisingly, requests for stringent limits on the hiring of non-resident workers took a prominent position. It is a worthwhile topic. Sadly, the messages seldom go beyond empty sloganeering or the ill-disguised lobbying for particular interest groups. However, the issues surrounding labour inflows and their integration in the workforce are at the heart of alternative development models that we would do well to discuss.
In broad terms, we can conceive two quite distinct approaches to the city’s development. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Well-meaning persons can reasonably discord about them, expressing divergent preferences and interests. The first one we can call the growth model. It may be summed up as: grow as fast as possible, and deal with the impacts, social and environmental, as they come. The other, we can call the social cohesion model. It may be described simply like this: target growth rates whose likely effects are within your ability to manage. It implies, inescapably, a slower growth path.
In both cases, we would be talking about an increasingly prosperous economy. Each path, however, is likely to yield considerably different consequences regarding income size and distribution, as well as the strains of the adjustment process. Each would be borne and perceived quite differently by the various groups of society. That’s the right stuff for a proper political debate and the collective choice processes that are at the heart of any political system.
In some ways, we can say the implicit model followed, until the current economic predicament hit, was the first one. Economic and political circumstances now seem to be imposing the second one. Had this debate taken place at an earlier stage, in a more open way, the transition difficulties so many complain about, could have been avoided or better managed. The visible degradation of the city’s social and physical infrastructure could also have been avoided. The past shortcomings notwithstanding, this is still a meaningful debate to be had.