Stop comparing Hong Kong with Singapore; the two are so far apart it’s meaningless
Peter Kammerer says Hong Kong’s charm lies in its patchwork of old and new, people’s creative spirit and government procrastination, which makes it very different from orderly Singapore
It is said that the rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore is one-sided; Singaporeans have been brainwashed into thinking that their city is better and therefore don’t have reason to be envious. Perhaps that’s true, given that it’s Hongkongers who seem to fret about losing out or being left behind. Whatever the case, there’s no reason whatsoever for having an inferiority complex. Hands down, Hong Kong is the place to be.
I have to preface that by saying I’ve not been to Singapore for a long time; so long that I’m struggling to come up with even the year. I can say, though, that I went for a job interview there in 1987 and was offered the position, but decided against it. I told the recruiter I’d think about it and, while walking back to my hotel, gave some thought to whether I’d fit in. Nothing was out of place, all was clean and orderly and, yet, something didn’t feel quite right.
I worked out what that something was a year later when I arrived in Hong Kong to take up another job offer – Singapore is overplanned. That didn’t occur to me until I walked out of my Causeway Bay hotel and began exploring streets lined with buildings jigsawed together, old ones with peeling paint and soot-blackened facades next to gleaming new ones. Back then, in the days before the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, cleanliness wasn’t much on the government’s mind and rubbish overflowed from bins onto footpaths and elderly men cleared their throats into gutters. Only on the MTR was there the order of Singapore, but in that contrast was the appeal of the city I have come to love.
Not a lot has changed beyond the cleanliness, easily fixed with fines and enforcement. Hong Kong remains a patchwork of the old and new, shops and neighbours coming and going due to rent contracts, and attempts to dramatically change the fabric met with an outcry that more often than not succeeds. If Beijing makes demands, the government complies swiftly, but home-grown ideas take time to gestate and sometimes never happen; we still don’t have household rubbish recycling, clean air, fleets of electric buses, vehicle congestion charges, a museum commemorating the life of Bruce Lee, and so on. There’s a certain charm in the procrastination, a sense that even though with our trillions in reserves, we can have whatever we want, but delivering it is such an effort that we’d rather not. Shining through is creativity, shown through artistic endeavour and innovative ways to get around problems.
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Hongkongers are overly critical, seeing what others have and wishing for the same and better; Singaporeans will compare themselves with others and always conclude that they’ve got the best. Our officials and pro-government experts are also caught in a bind as they fumble to meet the expectations of Beijing, and their eyes turn to Singapore for ingenuity. It’s a natural thing to do – the city state is the Chinese government’s model, both for its benign dictatorship and the way its run. But they needn’t be so unoriginal; they are equally well paid, have gone to universities that are just as good and should be able to come up with solutions to problems by themselves without needing to copy.
Yet there are headlines to prove it, and all we have to do is substitute the words from a list to finish this sentence: “Minister says Hong Kong should learn from Singapore on …” child care/housing/town planning/financial services/transport/environmental protection/water/pensions.
Singapore does not have the “one country, two systems” model to worry about and have Beijing staring it in the face. Its leaders can formulate well-rounded policies and promptly push ahead with their implementation. They don’t have pro-Beijing interests to deal with and cross-border projects that have to be invested in. That doesn’t mean Hong Kong is better or worse – its circumstances are so different that comparison is wrong.
Those circumstances and differences are why, after all these years, I’m still here.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post