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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 9:42am
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 4:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 7:50am

Booming years for Singapore but a lost decade for Hong Kong?

Once considered one of the world's great metropolises, we seem to have been eclipsed by city state's grand projects, dynamism and quality of life


George Chen is the Financial Editor and Mr. Shangkong Columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's political and economic changes since 2002. George is the author of two books -- This is Hong Kong I Know (2014) and Foreign Banks in China (2011). George has been named a 2014 Yale World Fellow. More about George: www.mrshangkong.com

Singapore is no stranger to either Shanghai or Hong Kong. When Deng Xiaoping, the late paramount leader, decided in the early 1990s to completely transform the Pudong New Area in Shanghai and open it up to foreign investors, Singapore had the chance to partner with Shanghai to develop Pudong.

Singapore eventually decided to team up with Suzhou, a smaller city near Shanghai, but developments in Singapore are still often covered by the Shanghai press and closely monitored by the municipal government, which frequently sends mid-ranking officials or senior executives at state-owned enterprises to the city state for management training.

In Hong Kong, feelings about Singapore are mixed.

Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan were known as the "Four Asian Tigers" for their economic booms in the 1970s and '80s.

Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District project seems somehow like a forgotten child

At that time, Hong Kong was often considered the leader of the pack. The city was considered as one of the world's truly global metropolises, while Singapore in the '70s and '80s, or even in the early 21st century, was more or less thought of as a regional centre for Southeast Asia.

I was in Singapore for a few days last week and I hadn't been to the city for a while. My first trip to Singapore was on a two-week training programme in 2004.

My colleagues and I stayed at a hotel near Orchard Road. At that time, the high-rises in Marina Bay didn't exist.

Today the Marina Bay Sands resort is Singapore's new landmark.

The development of the area was initiated about a decade ago. At more or less the same time, the Hong Kong government began serious work on its ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District plan.

Now Marina Bay is often featured on international television. The National Geographic channel even shot a documentary film about it.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the world, Hong Kong's project seems somehow like a forgotten child.

During my trip to Singapore last week, I met Mark Newman, the chief executive of Dutch bank ING's commercial banking arm in Asia. Newman worked in Hong Kong for about a decade and then moved to Singapore, where he has lived and worked for a decade, too.

I asked Newman to compare Hong Kong and Singapore. He said frankly that when ING tried to relocate him to Singapore, he was reluctant to move there. But now he loves Singapore and Hong Kong equally.

"About 10 years ago, I think Singapore was not very dynamic. But it has changed dramatically in the past 10 years," Newman said.

He said he finds Singapore a good fit for those who care about family life and education for their children, while pollution in Hong Kong has worsened rapidly since he left.

ING has since moved its regional headquarters to Singapore from Hong Kong.

I'm not sure if the past 10 years for Hong Kong has been a sort of lost decade, but Singapore has made a lot of progress during that time and has stood out in rankings of international cities.

Time is the best judge, isn't it?


George Chen is the financial editor and a columnist at the Post. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in print and online. Follow @george_chen on Twitter or visit facebook.com/mrshangkong


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This article is now closed to comments

Not sure if there is any point in this article other than stating the obvious. Reiterating the same perspective over and over again and whining over it doesn't add to anything. The reason why people are still here in HK (for those who are mobile) is the love for the place. Anyway, as much as you think Singapore has raced ahead, it is not difficult to change the game the other way as long as we are united. We are living in a different world now, and you will be surprised how things can change very quickly. They have taken our cheese but so can we if we want to. But we need the right education, the desire to win and the right leaders. Nonetheless, this decade belongs to Singapore. I cannot agree more but I do not agree that we cannot win it back.
i have lived in hk for 20 years and watched her decline, very sadly. the biggest indictment is the lack of focus on our kids, esp in education. HK was kind of lost after the handover, as she wasnt sure what role to play, whether to forge ahead independently , or to play as a puppet of prc.
since 1997 the kids who grew up during this time are probably the most unprepared for their future. The kids here just cant compete now with their spore and prc counterparts.
I feel that i have lived in hk in its heyday, which was in the 90s. its now become a real has-been.
Hong kong is still good but Singapore has become better. I hate to say this but Singapore has indeed surge ahead of hong kong - Singapore just keep getting better and better in all areas. Singapore has become the Switzerland of Asia but Hongkong did not. Why? In face of its challenges, Singapore only grow to become stronger, tougher and more prosperous.
I had similar feelings when resuming business trips to Singapore after an absence of several years. The Marina Bay development gets the most press but Changi Business Park can't be overlooked. Changi provides back office support for many MNCs at a lower cost than the CBD. Changi is what East Kowloon could have been if govt. had had the foresight to put in place a transport infrastructure before and not afterwards (instead we got a useless cruise terminal). Marina Bay is, of course, what West Kowloon could have been if govt. had not been so obsessed with an arts hub vs a more comprehensive development plan.

I don't have much hope for the future of HK frankly as we have a leadership vacuum in govt. at the highest levels. Our CE and principal officials are always looking over their shoulders to see if they can read the tea leaves in what BJ wants vs just getting on with the business of running govt. in a transparent and efficient manner. Problems are kicked down the road or put into the "too hard to solve" basket. More public consultations before doing nothing. On and on.
I have family in Singapore and the only think they miss about HK are the country parks, beaches and islands in which to get away from it all.
Now everything is under threat from greedy developers and a short-sighted government
HK could be the Monte Carlo of China but their vision is to turn HK into modern Shanghai..
A Kuro
Hong Kong is no longer the gateway to China as is becoming less and less useful to China. At the same time the lack of innovation and good education means HK competitiveness is eroding fast. Certainly HK is facing stagnation despite the massive aid that China gives HK.
"When we aren’t comparing individual wealth, the two cities can’t be compared fairly. Singapore is a city-state and Hong Kong is just a city no less a city of a limited time frame."

Hong Kong has many trappings of a city state. What kind of "ordinary" city has their own currency, customs, immigration policy, and judiciary? HK certainly does need better leadership that aren't so spineless though.
The comparison of the two cities if it is rooted in competition, it is senseless to a point of mindlessness. It seems such mindlessness in competing with others supposedly to energize Hong Kong is utterly foolishness. Have anyone heard NYC is competing with Paris? Or even Shanghai with Beijing. I for one don’t want to hear or read another story what Hong Kong is ahead or behind of another city in whatever. It only arouses instinct or just attention.
This is another piece of junk story with no substance produced by this author. Places flourish and decline with their own causes. Selling stories of rivalry and competition by quoting someone's personal feelings and superficial observation is not professional journalism at all. Can there be more substantive analysis on factors making the differences? How much the Singaporean government has spent on lobbying and rewarding foreign enterprises to move their headquarters there? How much GDP has been contributed by the Singaporean massive land-making reclamation and infrastructure projects? How much gambling money has benefitted the Singaporean economy? How has been the Singaporean immigration policy scoring in keeping their labour force productive? A lot of the readers might know the answers to these questions, perhaps except the author of this story unfortunately.
Singapore treats Hong Kong with respect, but it fears no one. Hong Kong was a highly entrepreneurial society, but that seems to be changing as well for various reasons. I guess when you have to deal with a variety of socio-economic-political challenges "on your own" instead of "leaving" it to a colonial master, it can sap your focus and energies to some extent, the way Singapore and South Korea had to focus on "nation-building". That said, Hong Kong still has a huge "natural" economic hinterland as tailwind, and along with it, special privileges - an advantage that Singapore does not have. No surprise for example that all the SOEs and most mainland companies list on the HKex and not the SGX. The key challenge for Hong Kong is how it reconciles itself with being a part of China, as well as take advantage of that without losing its international flavor. No political leader in Hong Kong since 97 has been any good in striking that balance between being a Chinese SAR and Hong Kong as its residents know it. I suspect Beijing detests rabble rousers who seek to undermine China's sovereignty over HK, as much as thoughtless yes men or women. I do believe they appreciate thinkers who can offer something constructive and different to them. That they continue to send scores of officials to learn from Singapore attest to this. Afterall, China and Singapore are like chalk and cheese. For example unlike the CCP, the PAP must get a mandate from the people to govern every 5 years.




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