Singapore's leadership style won't work in Hong Kong

Bernard Chan says in style and substance, it cannot be replicated here

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, made his annual policy address a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, it was front-page news in Singapore. But it also hit the headlines here in Hong Kong.

In fact, it was picked up by news media around the world, for two reasons. First, it signalled a shift in the Singapore government's approach. Second, this shift seemed to be a response to public discontent.

Becoming more like Singapore isn’t an option. We have to adapt our system to our freer society

It struck a chord in Hong Kong because many people are facing broadly similar problems. Economic and social inequality is a major concern; housing has become unaffordable for ordinary people; people are unhappy with education; and, the city has seen a major influx of outsiders, competing for space and resources.

The parallels are not exact. The Singapore government provides most of the city's housing, and apartments there are still cheaper, and bigger, than mass-market flats here. Singapore's influx of outsiders is very different. In Hong Kong, the problem is mainland shoppers. In Singapore, it is largely overseas workers who compete with locals for jobs and resources.

Still, to some, Lee's speech sounded like it was almost written for Hong Kong. He promised more housing subsidies, childcare payments to giver poorer children a better start in life, measures to open up top schools to students from poor backgrounds, and better health care for the elderly. He acknowledged that as a rich society, Singapore could and should do these things.

The Hong Kong media couldn't resist highlighting such measures, as if to say to our own government: how come you can't do this? How come in Singapore they can make housing more affordable or build a new runway, when in Hong Kong we can't even sort out our landfills?

In some ways, this is unfair. Our administration has rolled out serious measures to help the elderly and halted the influx of mainland mothers. While some business lobbies want to import cheap labour, the government has raised the minimum wage.

And Singapore has real problems. For example, a friend has to travel backwards several stations in the morning because the trains going into town are all full by the time they get to his neighbourhood. And let's not forget Singapore's higher taxes and compulsory savings rates.

But I can see why our media highlights Singapore's leadership style. There is something bold and decisive about it that we do not have.

There is a reason for that. Singapore's government is fundamentally authoritarian. The shift in policy direction announced by Lee did not include political reforms or greater media freedom. The government is reacting to popular demands because it has been coming under growing pressure in elections, and is facing public demands for a more liberal system.

In Hong Kong, our current political structure gives us relatively weak government. It gives influence to particular vested interests and encourages elected lawmakers to oppose the government without offering serious policy alternatives. Parts of our free press tend to support either the vested interests or the opposition politicians and can be equally negative.

Would we be better off with a more Singaporean-style system? Some think so. But becoming more like Singapore isn't an option. We have to find ways to adapt our political system to our freer, in some ways more chaotic, society.

Hong Kong is not short of ideas. We could sort out our waste problems - even housing - if district councils, commercial interests, the press and politicians disappeared and the government was left to execute policies. Since that's not going to happen, we must do the best we can in reforming our political structure, and probably make trade-offs. Even the Singapore government has to do that.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council