• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 2:01pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore is prioritising social equality

Woo Jun Jie says one is focusing on competitiveness while the other is prioritising social equality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 1:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 2:13am

As prosperous and successful Asian cities, Hong Kong and Singapore have often taken each other as bases for comparison across a wide array of measures. Such comparisons have on occasion bordered on controversy, as evidenced by Li Ka-shing's recent remarks on Hong Kong being a "spoilt child" as well as his observation that Singapore is "outpacing" Hong Kong both economically and innovatively.

However, such assessments run the risk of overstating quantifiable similarities and ignoring important qualitative differences in their governance models and future trajectories.

To be sure, Hong Kong and Singapore are similar in several ways. Both have established themselves as leading international financial centres in Asia as well as offshore renminbi centres. They are leading port cities in the region, have a similar approach to economic development, and both are attractive locations for multinational companies to establish their headquarters.

Both were also formerly British colonial outposts and have experienced brief but traumatic periods of Japanese occupation during the second world war. Further, the two share demographic similarities, with their populations relatively small and ageing.

Given these similarities, it becomes almost too easy for observers and analysts to draw comparisons, providing policymakers with a convenient benchmark for policy targets.

However, they often gloss over important differences, and fail to take into account each city's unique governance model and aspirations of its citizens.

First, while Hong Kong is a special administrative region operating under the purview of a central government, it nonetheless retains substantial policy autonomy. More importantly, it has a highly liberal political and cultural environment where residents enjoy strong freedom of speech, contributing to the city's political discourse.

In contrast, Singapore's political system has often been described as a "hybrid" of soft authoritarianism and procedural democracy. While citizens are able to take part in free and fair elections, the state sets limits on public discourse, particularly on race or religion. However, Singapore's 2011 general election saw a gradual politicisation of its population and a shift towards a more liberal political environment, as citizens became more vocal and opposition parties gained prominence (and votes).

Nonetheless, it is safe to say Singapore's governance model remains more state-centric. This is especially obvious in economic policy, with strong state intervention in the markets and the presence of government-linked companies. In contrast, the Hong Kong government adopts a laissez-faire approach.

Such differences also flow into the spatial development of the two cities. In particular, Singapore is known for its clean and even "sterile" living environment. Urban planning is efficiently carried out by the state, while Singapore's public housing is well known for its high standards of design and planning. In contrast, Hong Kong's development is a more organic process, sporting a diversity of urban forms within its confines.

Lastly, and most importantly, Hong Kong and Singapore are moving in different policy trajectories. Before Li's remarks, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah had said Hong Kong should learn from Singapore in terms of using imported labour and reclaimed land to enhance economic growth and competitiveness.

Ironically, Singaporeans have of late been lamenting the rising inequality that has come with the city state's economic success.

The government has correspondingly begun shifting its policy focus to minimising inequality, with its recently announced budget featuring measures to provide support for lower-income households and the elderly. This focus on the elderly is encapsulated in the "Pioneer Generation Package" that forms the centrepiece of the 2014 budget.

In other words, Hong Kong and Singapore are moving in different directions, with the former focusing on competitiveness and the latter shifting towards social equality.

As they continue to maintain their positions as leading Asian economies and financial centres, comparisons are inevitable. Yet, the reality is that key differences make such assessments an ineffective basis for policy formulation.

Rather than focusing on similarities, policymakers and analysts from both cities should be more mindful of the unique political and spatial circumstances within which each operates.

This will further allow for a more nuanced understanding of how certain policies have worked (or not) within the two cities and whether lessons can be drawn from successes, or indeed whether there should be greater efforts made to adapt, rather than import, successful policy practices.

Woo Jun Jie is a researcher at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design, where he works on issues of governance and leadership


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This article is now closed to comments

I imagine it's only lack of space that restricted the author from elaborating on how Singapore's move to reduce social inequality applies to low-paid foreign workers who now make up more than 1/3 of the labour force. Perhaps in the next article?
HK is laissez-faire and focused on competitiveness? If the writer had meant that HK is not geared towards protecting the interests of its oligarchs, then I would agree with him. Sadly no. He has repeated the common stereotype about the city, a broad generalization that he seems so keen to eschew. It is possible to focus on competitiveness, productivity enhancement and wealth redistribution at the same time. These objectives are not mutually exclusive. Differences in socio-economic-political orientation does not mean that it is simplistic to compare the policy outcomes of both cities. To believe this would be to display weak-minded intellectual and moral relativism. The proof at the end of the day, is still in the pudding, even the policy trajectories of both cities may differ due to their unique geostrategic circumstances.
S'pore and HK should not be compared at all because their political systems are different? I am afraid not. There is certainly room for constructive comparison. Both can learn from as well as push each other to new heights - the positive aspects. What is wrong though is to believe that what works in one city will automatically succeed in another. All policies must consider local factors, just as marketing and product strategies must be localised to suit individual markets, even in this globalised age. Still local differences should not obfuscate the fact that there some basic needs that are universal to all human beings and societies. I believe that having a decent roof over one's head is one. Is the author therefore suggesting that there is nothing that Hong Kong can learn from what Singapore has achieved in this regard? To think so would be to surrender to inertia. Let us not forget that a lot of what is left in HK today was institutuonalised by the British, including the Basic Law. Now if some HK residents can take to "democracy" like their old colonial masters, or admire the "capitalism" of Adam Smith a Scot, I fail to understand why not good policies from S'pore? For johny's information, Singapore is not a "Chinese" society the way that Hong Kong is. The Chinese make up only 75% of Singapore's population (compared to about 95% in HK) and their ancestral roots hail from many parts of the mainland, not principally Canton
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Too much space is devoted to comparing the two cities of its past. Listen, Singapore and Hong Kong shouldn’t be compared at all. The political system is so entirely different. Singapore is a country and Hong Kong is just a city that is part of a country. Stop comparing and disregard this story or LKS’s. They are misleading us out of presumption that all ethnic Chinese and Chinese are identical twins. How shallow and traditional of that view.
Rightly, Tung Chee Hwa shortly became our Chief Executive, he turned down Lee Kuan Yew when he offered to help Hong Kong’s ‘independence’ after the handover.
It is a fallacy to believe that lowly paid foreign workers make up more than a third of the workforce simply because they don't. Yes, foreigners make up about a third of the workforce but a fair percentage are most certainly not lowly paid - ie. CEOs, bankers, traders, lawyers and so forth. But I know what you are driving at. Unfortunately, the policies towards social "equality" applies only to Singaporeans, no different I believe from many other societies. Citizens remain the priority of government perks. Still, there is a growing move to enhance the "welfare" of lowly-paid foreign workers as well, led by NGOs and civil society. In any case "lowly" paid is really relative. It is mostly a willing seller willing buyer market. Most of these workers earn 3 to 4 times what they do back home, if not more. Why else would they come to Singapore? Slave drivers most certainly did not force them over. The author's view that Singapore is moving towards "equality" is a jaundiced one, most probably of someone who is influenced by the misguided belief that the social welfare models of Western Europe, especially the Scandinavian states, can be universally applied, even at a time when these countries themselves are retreating from such ideals. Such an interpretation of the government's efforts to reduce social inequality does not square with that of the Singapore government, which most certainly does not endorse a welfarist approach for the city-state. They have made it very very clear.


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