Reality check

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2012, 12:00am


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Hong Kong is a great city, but the world's best? That status is as subjective as the music we like, a matter of personal preference. As we live in a major business, financial and tourism centre, though, it is inevitable that those who like to compare and contrast to produce international rankings will include us. To the glee of officials charged with enticing and attracting, another list has been topped, this time one about liveability.

I should feel good about being in a place that the respected Economist Intelligence Unit determines is the world's most liveable. But just as with the US think tank Heritage Foundation's survey that, for the past 18 years, has found Hong Kong to have the freest economy, I cannot help but furrow my brow.

There is nothing free about an economy bound by a minimum wage in which the government dictates the value of land and, as a consequence, property prices and rents, while being the top shareholder in the stock market, in a monopoly railway company and in a major tourist attraction, Disneyland. Similarly, it's hard to believe a city that is crowded, cramped for all but the wealthy, heavily polluted and uncomfortable for much of the year, climate-wise - not to mention matters of politics, housing and education - could be the world's best.

The study resulted from a contest to find the optimal way of determining liveability, important for firms trying to decide where to expand operations. Using the Economist Intelligence Unit's existing methodology of 30 indicators in areas like infrastructure, education and social stability as the basis, the winning entry added another seven values related to 'spatial' qualities.

Hong Kong was 10th in the last index, but with green space, pollution, cultural assets and urban sprawl factored in, it leap-frogged the likes of Tokyo, Toronto, Berlin, Sydney and Paris to take the top spot. To anyone who uses an inhaler or mask because of the poor air, whose sweat pours as soon as they leave the front door, the finding is odd.

It was on my mind on Friday as I negotiated an industrial building in Tsuen Wan to buy a earpiece microphone from a Japanese electronics company. The firm had shut down its Tsim Sha Tsui office and consolidated operations with its repair centre and warehouse. Cost-cutting was obviously at the heart of the decision, but someone in authority in Tokyo had plainly also been influenced by surveys indicating how compact and infrastructurally superior our city is. I can only assume that was why so specialist a piece of equipment was unavailable anywhere else in town, could not be bought over the phone by credit card and had to be picked up in person. The 90-minute bus trip from North Point, the choking air and the dangerously swerving vehicles convinced me that from now on, such purchases would be made online and come from the other side of the world.

Hong Kong fares less well in similar studies. The human resources firm Mercer ranks us 70th in its quality of living survey, which has Vienna at the top. Lifestyle magazine Monocle puts us at 13 on a list headed by Zurich. I take it all with a pinch of salt. What I consider comfortable living is determined by my experiences and expectations; to use an index not intended for me would only lead to disappointment.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post