Can Hong Kong be the envy of Singapore once more?
Tony Kwok says Hong Kong has fallen a long way from its lofty perch in the 1970s when it was held in high esteem by many Singaporeans. It should aim not just to catch up, but try to leapfrog Singapore in the major international rankings
When I visited my relatives in Singapore in the 1970s, they would grill me at length on everything about Hong Kong, comparing it with Singapore. You could feel from their tone how much they envied Hong Kong’s achievements and how eager they wanted to catch up with Hong Kong. Now, of course, Singaporeans no longer feel this way, simply because they do not consider Hong Kong to be in the same league.
How the Hong Kong vs Singapore thing got started, and why Lion City doesn’t indulge in such petty comparisons
As recently as 1997, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product was above that of Singapore. But now, Singapore’s GDP per capita is US$51,855, compared with Hong Kong’s US$36,173, according to the World Bank. This is in line with the International Labour Organisation’s comparison of monthly wages in Asia and the Pacific, which puts Hong Kong behind Singapore.
With a new administration under Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor taking the helm this weekend, it is time for Hong Kong to catch up with Singapore. One way is to aim to improve Hong Kong’s international rankings in areas where they fall behind Singapore’s.
The Mercer Quality of Living Survey this year placed Singapore as No 1 in Asia, while Hong Kong was No 7. In the UN World Happiness Report this year, Hong Kong is in a poor 71st position, while Singapore is 26th. To improve on these two rankings, we need to solve Hong Kong’s top problem – housing. This is where we should try to learn from Singapore. While it has less land than Hong Kong, the average Singaporean’s living area is 270 sq ft, compared with a Hongkonger’s 170 sq ft – 58 per cent more spacious. No wonder they are happier people.
Another important factor in quality of living is education. According to the latest findings of the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), run by the OECD, which are based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in more than 70 territories, Singapore tops all three measures, ranking first in science, maths and reading. Hong Kong, meanwhile, is ranked ninth in science, and second in both reading and maths.
In higher education, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is rated first in Asia by both the Times Higher Education and the QS rankings, beating the University of Hong Kong, which lies fifth and second respectively.
Innovation and technology makes a significant contribution to Singapore’s GDP. According to the Global Innovation Index 2017, Singapore ranks seventh in the world and first in Asia, while Hong Kong fell to 16th. One reason is that Hong Kong had a late start – the establishment of our Innovation and Technology Bureau was delayed for over three years by opposition parties in the Legislative Council. The other reason is money. The Singapore government sets aside 2.19 per cent of its GDP on research and development, compared with HK’s disgraceful 0.73 per cent.
In logistics, Hong Kong used to be the No 1 port in the world, now it is fifth, overtaken by Shanghai and Singapore. The Hong Kong International Airport used to rank top in many international surveys, but now, according to the Skytrax World Airport Award, Singapore’s Changi Airport is No 1 and we are fifth.
In law and order, Hong Kong takes pride in being one of the safest cities in the world. However, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index 2015, Hong Kong is 11th to Singapore’s second. Further, Hong Kong has also failed to amalgamate the two ranks of barrister and solicitor, making the city an expensive jurisdiction in terms of legal costs – an obstacle in our attempt to become an international arbitration centre.
Hong Kong used to be the first choice for multinational enterprises to set up their regional headquarters, but in recent years, more and more of these corporations have moved their regional headquarters to Singapore, especially after the Occupy Central protest movement.
There are some obvious reasons why Hong Kong trails behind Singapore. Singapore has a relatively steady political environment while Hong Kong, particularly after the return of sovereignty, has continued to suffer political bickering on all major and minor issues. To a certain extent, this may be due to our top government officials lacking the required political skills. Again, this is something we can learn from Singapore, which had the foresight to set up the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, a postgraduate school of the NUS, to train its next generation of policymakers.
When asked why Hong Kong lags behind Singapore, Carrie Lam said that with Hong Kong’s competitive advantages, she was simply not convinced that we are second to Singapore. Let’s hope that she and her chosen bureau secretaries can work closely with the people of Hong Kong to win back some pride over our rival Singapore.
Tony Kwok is an honorary fellow and adjunct professor at HKU SPACE and an adviser to the Our Hong Kong Foundation