Singapore shows Hong Kong the way forward with big projects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 August, 2013, 3:48am

The airport's capacity is to be doubled, public health insurance will cover pre-existing illnesses and the government will make housing more affordable, all without much argument. This may be true in Singapore, where the government has just announced these plans, but not in Hong Kong. Similar questions have prompted debate here about environmental impact, welfarism and a stable property market.

Critics of Singapore's way of doing things say it lacks the lively public debates in political forums and a diverse media - and challenging of government policies - that have become an important part of Hong Kong's political scene. Defenders say it has become better at getting big things done - a quality Hong Kong has traditionally prided itself on.

So long as conflict between our officials and lawmakers are blamed for frustrating progress, and lawmakers bicker among themselves, Hong Kong risks such comparisons.

The latest have been prompted by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's annual National Day Rally policy address. The centrepiece was the expansion of Changi airport. "The question is do we want to stay this vibrant hub of Southeast Asia, or do we want to let somebody take over our position, our business and our jobs?" he said. This resonates with a comment by former secretary for commerce and economic development Frederick Ma Si-hang, that it is time for Hong Kong to look beyond micro issues and focus on how to move forward with big projects, as it did by building an airport in the 1990s, before it is overtaken by fast-growing economies such as Singapore's.

Ironically, while the Singaporean government may be seen as authoritarian, it can cite election with a popular mandate as its authority for getting things done, as opposed to our executive government's lack of it. In this respect, Lee's unequivocal response to the challenges facing Singapore follow the wake-up calls of two by-election defeats for the government on top of its worst-ever general poll showing in 2011.

Universal suffrage therefore can be part of the solution rather than the problem. Hong Kong will not get its own version of a popularly elected chief executive and legislature until 2017 and 2020 at the earliest. But the city cannot afford to wait until then for lawmakers and officials to strive harder for compromise and consensus on how to move the city forward and maintain its competitiveness.