Competition, long hours, lack of family time: Why we are the reason Hong Kong is less 'liveable'

Alice Wu says rather than pointing the finger at Occupy Central, we should look at the kind of life we make for ourselves, with our ultra-competitive behaviour, long work hours and lack of family time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 9:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 4:16pm

The latest Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Global Liveability Ranking is fascinating. We are a city of winners. Every time we lose, we're instantly consumed by guilt and shame. So, naturally, someone needs to be blamed. Interestingly, the report did that for us: blaming Occupy Central for our drop of 15 places in "liveability".

And what are we to make of survey editor Jon Copestake's "pat on the back" comment that our city "retains bragging rights over its regional competitor Singapore, but by a tiny margin"? I imagine the very mention of Singapore got some of the most competitive Hongkongers to twitch.

A lot of people question these studies. How does one define "liveability" anyway? Different surveys use their own concoctions of parameters and indicators for measurement, but none has been able to define what constitutes the very thing they have tried to measure. The EIU is no different. When it came out with the "Best Cities Ranking" in 2012, as a result of an exercise in exploring better approaches to benchmarking cities, Hong Kong, to the surprise of the EIU, came out on top. What that says is that, with the right data set - and, for the "Best Cities" one, spatial awareness figures into the number crunching - Hong Kong can be considered the ideal.

Being competitive all the time, or worrying about it all the time, doesn't make our city any more liveable

Nonetheless, while we shouldn't take these studies too seriously, they should inspire us to examine the well-being of our communities and the quality of life we impose on ourselves. There will always be room for policy improvement and better government, but my gut tells me that we are the reason our city is now 3.2 per cent less liveable than before - all of us, and all the baggage that is weighing us down.

It's cultural. It's part of our identity. Hongkongers are highly strung, and we're wired to be proud of overachieving. We're obsessed with competitiveness - the daily grind is all about competing against the next person or beating the system. Just look at how many try to beat the closing train doors on the MTR. And yet, our government makes us this way. But, by taking a step back, it's easy to see that being competitive all the time, or worrying about it all the time, doesn't make our city any more liveable.

Occupy Central is a symptom of a generally unhappy, highly stressed and dissatisfied population. It was an eruption of very raw emotions mixed with consistently high cortisol levels. So while the protests may have "hit Hong Kong's liveability", it's hardly a major reason this is an increasingly unlivable place.

Hong Kong is less liveable because we are unhappy (and there are studies to tell us that, too). It's the air quality, cost of living, price and size of homes, long working hours, lack of recreation time, and an education system that embeds "stress" into the lives of toddlers. If anything, Occupy is an outcry of desperation. Our youth can't see a bright future or find this city "liveable", no matter now trained they are to be competitive.

So, instead of blaming and shaming, let's use this drop of 15 spots as a catalyst for serious public discussion on positive changes we can make. We must begin by re-examining our own priorities and how we live. We have to make conscious decisions not to run as train doors close, not let work get in the way of family life and not enrol our kids in after-school tutorials that rob them of their childhood. We must recognise that liveability extends beyond just economic dynamism and career opportunities. When we shift our priorities, they can help force policymakers to shift theirs in making Hong Kong a vibrant place, not only for businesses, but for residents. The threat of political unrest doesn't make our city less liveable; the threat of our increasing restlessness makes it less liveable.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA