Why Hong Kong can never be Singapore: just blame history

William Zheng says while the two cities have plenty to learn from each other, they have to mind the gap, as Singapore-style big government would be a misfit in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 10:13am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 7:10pm

Intuition leads us to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side. But Chinese philosopher Yanzi used the parable of “sweet orange trees can only bear sour fruit if moved to the wrong soil” to remind us that things can turn sour if the environment is not right.

While many Singaporeans were admiring the wonderful performance of Hong Kong’s MTR, and the city’s vibrant financial markets backed by mainland China listings, new Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor spoke about learning the interventionist approach from Singapore to compete with other economies, despite the laissez-faire tradition.

During her first official visit to the Lion City, Lam also indicated her interest in setting up a training college for civil servants, to provide more training “especially in areas like leadership, public participation and in terms of the application and use of technology”.

While pro-business civil servants can certainly play a bigger role in economic development, the government should be mindful of the fundamental differences between the Hong Kong and Singapore systems.

Many analysts like to compare the cities, but many fail to emphasise that Singapore is a sovereign nation with an established political process that allows its paternalistic government to formulate interventionist approaches with an iron-fisted resolve.

Singapore: the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew

In the 2015 general election, nearly 70 per cent of Singaporeans voted for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Some may argue that the Group Representation Constituency system – which requires teams of candidates from different ethnic groups, instead of individual candidates, to compete for seats in Parliament for the constituency – and other political manoeuvres resulted in the PAP’s landslide victory. However, the majority would not question the strong mandate to rule.

Hong Kong never had sovereignty. It was ruled by the British empire before returning to China

That alone allows the Singapore government to continue to be interventionist without causing too much public dismay. “Big government” can swing into action faster and more decisively – its womb-to-tomb presence is arguably regarded as one of the cornerstones of Singapore’s phenomenal efficiency.

We should note that Singapore’s civil service was created, and is supported by, such a unique political system and social grounds, hardly to be found in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong never had sovereignty. It was ruled by the British empire before returning to China as a special administrative region. Deng Xiaoping’s ingenious “one country, two systems” did provide some form of protection for its autonomy, but Beijing still has the ultimate say on many important Hong Kong’s matters, based on the Basic Law.

The fact that the chief executive of Hong Kong cannot be a member of any political party, plus the current fragmented political scenario, do not help either. Lam’s government will continue to face huge political obstacles in the Legislative Council. As increasing public unhappiness with the current election process continues to tear society apart, little consensus can be forged on the way forward.

Public housing probably best illustrates the difference between Hong Kong and Singapore. Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, was brave enough in 1997 to pledge 85,000 public housing flats each year. But that well-intended plan was conceived and launched at the wrong time. As the Asian financial crisis caused home prices to nosedive, more public housing just aggravated the problem. Since then, the government has never aggressively pushed for more public housing, even after property prices surpassed the heights seen in mid-1997.

According to consumer price tracking website Numbeo, Hong Kong’s housing prices are as much as 37 times the median annual income. Many young Hongkongers have lost hope of ever affording their own home.

Meanwhile in Singapore, despite a slowdown in the pace of building during the financial crisis, its housing board has consistently scored well on what helps the ruling party to win: affordable public housing.

About 82 per cent of the population live in government Housing & Development Board flats. This is one of the foundational achievements of the PAP which has won the hearts of generations of Singaporeans. It also serves as a multifunctional social engineering tool for the government to achieve better racial harmony and social stability, and finance the retirement needs of older generations.

No doubt, there is vast potential for Hong Kong and Singapore to learn from each other and deepen their relations as springboards to our respective hinterlands, namely China and Asean. The leaders of the two cities could certainly explore further the opportunities brought by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is playing a very important role.

Nevertheless, we still need to caution ourselves that, while durians grow well in Singapore, the easiest way for Hongkongers to taste the popular fruit is to import them, rather than plant durian trees in Wan Chai.

William Zheng is a veteran journalist who has served and led major Singapore and Hong Kong media organisations in his 20-year career