Why does Hong Kong put up with a so-so quality of life?
For as long as I can remember, comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore have given this city an edge: Hong Kong is bigger, freer, lower-taxed and more vibrant, even if Singapore has more space and less chewing gum. But as a frequent visitor to Singapore, I am starting to have second thoughts.
Singapore has been growing faster than Hong Kong. If we want to worry about statistics, we can explain them: Singapore's better economic performance partly reflects currency movements, and Singapore's population surge includes a large number of migrant workers in construction and service industries. But this does not really matter; it does not necessarily reflect some sort of failure on Hong Kong's part.
Even if Singapore visibly overtakes us as an economy and in terms of population - so what? The important thing to Hong Kong is the absolute success of our own city, not whether another place is doing well or not. It would be childish (and actually incorrect) to think that we somehow benefit or 'win' if Singapore does less well.
Even so, the two serve as benchmarks for each other. And I personally find it worrying to see that Singapore is now doing better than Hong Kong in certain important ways - not because I want Singapore to do badly but because it suggests Hong Kong is underperforming. The comparison we must make is between Hong Kong as it is and Hong Kong as it could be.
Our taxes may be lower and our media freer, but in some areas Hong Kong is seriously underachieving. I am talking about quality of life, like living space, urban green space, air pollution and details like outdoor dining. I am talking about issues to do with aesthetics, like building design and the planning and integration of urban areas. And I am talking about something that's hard to pin down but impossible to miss: the vibrancy and feel of an international community.
Singapore, frankly, is doing much better than Hong Kong in these areas. I congratulate my Singaporean friends for that, but I also have to ask why we in Hong Kong have to put up with what is starting to look like an unnecessarily low quality of life. If Singapore can do these things well, why can't we in Hong Kong?
This is going to be a test of the next government. Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying has indicated that he is willing to take decisive action on the issue of mainland mothers, and it seems clear that he wants a government structure that supports a cohesive direction for housing policy.
Quality of life may be harder to define, but I think more and more of us believe that it is another area where Hong Kong needs a serious change in direction.
I do not think this problem has a simple, single cause, but our political system and culture are obviously unhelpful. Singaporeans get by without much of an opposition but with a strong government. Maybe Hong Kong goes too far in the other direction. Our opposition has a sort of mandate but no power, so it opposes and criticises as an end in itself. This has made government weaker and more nervous. It encourages a culture of blame and an obsession among officials with avoiding controversy or risk-taking. Quality of life is one area that suffers as a result.
Singapore has spacious and relaxing outdoor dining all over the place. It has converted historic buildings into food courts serving tasty and good-value food. It has green space in downtown areas. There is a vision behind all this, and it is embraced by the public as well as political leaders.
In Hong Kong, it sometimes seems as if the leadership 'don't get' things like food or parks. Certainly, our civil servants have no incentive to be adventurous or bold in making urban areas nicer. Make one mistake, attract one complaint, and legislators will shout at them. Co-operate with the private sector, and they will be accused of collusion.
We will soon see whether a new style of leadership in Hong Kong can make a difference.
Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils