The General Union for Neighbourhood Associations: Livelihood is the top concern

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Issue 802, Page 10 – 11
Word count: 1816
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

The General Union of Neighbourhood Associations of Macau (UGAMM), or commonly known as “Kai Fong”, is probably the largest non-profit social service organisation in Macau.

Not only does UGAMM has an extended organisational structure comprising 26 district neighbourhood associations, 12 affair committees and 23 social services centres, its expenditure is also “remarkable”.

According to director Io Hong Meng, UGAMM spends around four million patacas every month just on the salaries of the 380 staff members in the headquarters and the social services centres, excluding those 150 staff working in the two schools run by the general union.

“Social services have to be done by men, not by machines or technologies,” Mr Io told the Macau Daily Times in an interview in the Toi San headquarters.

Following the development in society, he said people’s demand regarding service quality is getting high. Thus among the 380 staff, over 100 are professionals such as social workers, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and accountants.

“We’re having difficulty too. The government takes away a lot of professional personnel from us,” Mr Io said.

Since 60 percent of UGAMM’s funding comes from the government, the remaining 40 percent has to be raised from donations, membership fees, rental income or service charges in some of the social service centres.

The December 1, 2007 to November 30, 2008 balance sheet showed that the total expenditure of UGAMM amounted to some 26 million patacas.

The MDTimes spoke with the UGAMM director in the Toi San headquarters, and tried to find out what makes this general union so “valuable”.

Reporter: UGAMM involves in a lot of social affairs and offers a wide range of social services. How will you describe what it does and what was the history?

Io Hong Meng: UGAMM is a non-profit community organisation which mainly provides a variety of services to neighbours. It comprises 26 district neighbourhood associations including in Taipa and Coloane. We also operate 23 service centres including community centres, elderly centres, family and youth centres, nurseries and also a building management resources centre. In addition, we run Fong Chong Primary School and Fong Chong Secondary School in the northern district. The district neighbourhood associations at the same time operate their own social services centres. About 50 property owners associations are UGAMM’s associated members. But actually there are over 100 property owners associations which have cooperation and direct contacts with us. The headquarters in Toi San and the 23 service centres have altogether 380 staff members.

UGAMM was founded on December 30, 1983. But most of the 26 affiliated neighbourhood associations were indeed established between the 1950s and 1960s. UGAMM united all neighbourhood associations in order to empower the position of civilians to fight for their rights and interests from the Portuguese administration. The Portuguese government at that time started to pay more attention to democracy and open to the Chinese community. Also, since the Sino-Portuguese negotiation was about to begin, we thought that we needed to reflect people’s opinions, promote social development and concentrate power to implement social services. Thus, in 1985 UGAMM opened the first service centre, I Hong Centre for elderly people. Over the past 25 years we set up 23 centres and two schools. The newest one is the emergency call centre also for elderly people. Our main goal is to provide community services.

R: What was UGAMM’s most significant contribution to Macau society?

Mr Io: I think it would be expressing residents’ demands in order to protect their rights and interests, and to press the government to improve livelihood issues. Before the handover, we had to ensure a smooth transition, and since 2000 it was about building a SAR by executing the principles of ‘one country, two systems’, ‘Macau people ruling Macau’ and a high degree of autonomy.

UGAMM already participated and won seats in the legislative elections since 1988 and the municipal council elections starting 1989. In 1988, it was our president Lao Kuong Po who represented UAGMM in the Legislative Assembly. Afterwards it had been Leong Heng Teng from 1991 until this year.

Before the handover, UGAMM was the only association in Macau that paid high attention to the housing problem. In the 1980s until early 1990s, Macau’s public housing policy was very poor. There was no open and transparent application system for social housing and most of the time people had to ‘enter from the back door’ and asked civil servants for assistance. If you handed in an official application, it was unlikely that you would succeed. As for economic housing, all of the units were sold by developers. At that time when economic housing was of high demand and private property prices were very high, people had to give developers money [or “tips”] in the form of paying them drinks in order to get a place to purchase an economic housing unit. A private property was priced at 400,000 to 500,000 patacas, while the economic housing was about 100,000 patacas, even you paid another 100,000 patacas (“tips”), the cost was still much cheaper. Hence, UGAMM pressed the Portuguese administration to set up the Housing Bureau in 1990 in order to monitor the public housing allocation. Since 1991, a set of related legislation was enacted, including the social housing and economic housing allocation systems, and the management of economic housing.

In addition, between the end of the 80s and early 90s, the government estimated that there were over 8,000 shacks in Macau and some 40,000 people living in them. Due to social development a lot of shacks had to be removed, thus the settlement of the 40,000 people and their compensation became a major topic. Many developers asked triad members to go to evict the shack habitants. UGAMM acted as a middle-person to solve disputes and help half of the habitants apply for public housing. We grouped the habitants together to negotiate with the developers.

In 1992, UGAMM was given by the developer 128 economic housing units in the whole Block 6 of Tong Wa Sun Chun [in Areia Preta] as a way to thank for our efforts. But we decided to draw lots and distribute all of the units to local residents. Around 8,000 families applied to take part in the draw. Since then, public housing started to be allocated in a fair, open and impartial way. We understand that more than 10,000 families had benefited from this system over the past 14 years.

R: Would you say UGAMM’s work has been effective so far?

Mr Io: We don’t want to evaluate ourselves, but we have been trying our best to fight for people’s welfare, solve their difficulties and urge the government to improve livelihood. Only when social stability is assured can the economy develop, and when the economy is developed people’s livelihood can be guaranteed.

UGAMM runs a community economic affairs committee to assist each community to develop its economy based on its own characteristics. For example the Three Lamps District promotes the Southeast Asian gourmet and organises a food festival every year. Old neighbourhood areas such as Ho Lan Yuen promotes cultural and creative industries. We hope that renewal projects can bring old neighbourhood districts into life so as to enhance people’s living environment and revive the city. We believe that the government has to take the lead to push forward district economy.

UGAMM is concerned about a wide range of affairs and government policies, particularly those related to people’s livelihood. We serve as a bridge to foster communications and cooperation between officials and civilians.

R: Since you said UGAMM is very much concerned about livelihood issues, how do you see the current situation in Macau?

Mr Io: It’s a fact that the economy was developed and people’s income increased. But at the same time many problems were resulted and the gap between rich and poor widened. Livelihood issues did not improve greatly as a result of the economic bloom. There was certain improvement, but it was below the public’s expectations. GDP and public revenue grew manifold but people’s living did not improve at the same pace. Property prices jumped 10 times, traffic and transportation were poor, the environment was crowded, public security problems and pollution were more commonly seen. They are inevitable problems when the economy grew and more people came to the territory. But the government did not deal with the problems promptly which made locals discontented. Hence in the 2005 legislative election UGAMM talked about how the government should allow civilians to share the fruit of economic growth. Lawmakers Leong Heng Teng and Iong Weng Ian suggested the double-tier social security system for all Macau residents. In 2004 UGAMM also proposed to the Chief Executive to introduce senior pensions, which increased from 100 patacas a month to 5,000 patacas a year now. Rental subsidies, income subsidies and bus concession were also suggested by UGAMM.

R: So it seems that UGAMM is a really influential association in Macau…

Mr Io: We can’t assess our own and determine whether we’ve made significant contribution to Macau. I think we still have a lot of room to improve and work harder. There are many things we advocate but haven’t been implemented by the government yet including the double-tier social security system and the construction of 19,000 public housing units. We visited the Chief Executive recently and he said that the double-tier social security system bill could only be presented to the Assembly after the new term commences in October. Our ultimate goal is to improve livelihood and facilitate fairness, impartiality and harmony in society.

The idea of ‘Macau people ruling Macau’ isn’t only about having some Macau-born officials to rule the territory, but is about all people being able to participate and monitor the government together in order to achieve progress in society.

R: This year UGAMM and the Women’s General Association designated two new faces as the first and second candidates on the list running for the direct legislative election. Why?

Mr Io: We believe that there must be a process and spirit to pass on our beliefs and traditions to other people. Leong Heng Teng and Iong Weng Ian had been lawmakers for respectively 18 and 10 years. Candidates running for direct legislative elections will face more pressure and lawmakers will also have to deal with increased workloads nowadays. Therefore, we need some young, energetic and responsible individuals to carry on their [Leong and Iong] work.

We were a bit worried and had some pressure because the first two candidates may be lesser known by the public. That’s why we have been trying our best to promote [them] and to strive for a good result. The candidates from the Federation of Trade Unions are current lawmakers who are well known in society, but ours are brand new. We hope that people will understand our candidates will dedicate themselves to society as what our lawmakers had been doing in the past.

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