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