How Singapore and the other ‘little dragon’ economies have left Hong Kong huffing and puffing

Alice Wu says Singapore hosting the Trump-Kim summit should wake Hong Kong up to the fact it has been left behind in the little dragons’ race

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 7:37pm

Besides the main feature of the melodramatic Trump-Kim summit, the geopolitical sideshows that have been playing out for weeks, if not months, are the real politicking – guaranteed to have more substantial and lasting consequences.

First, the two inter-Korean summits, in April and May, broke 11 years of mutual silence. Second, Singapore played the perfect host to the US-North Korea summit. Finally, perhaps less obvious but now causing quite a stir, is the de facto American embassy that was unveiled in Taipei on the same day as the Trump-Kim summit.

The only missing “little dragon” is Hong Kong, and that’s something we need to chew on, in addition to the glutinous rice dumplings we’re overdosing on for the Dragon Boat festival.

Once known as the four little dragons, the four miracle economics of Asia – Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea – have evolved quite differently since their trailblazing and fire-breathing days from the 1960s to the 1990s. Hong Kong was once the leader of the pack, considered the biggest winner with phenomenal growth rates. However, today, we seem to have been relegated to the stands, simply looking on for the latest dragon boat race.

Today, Singapore seems the obvious winner. Hosting the summit is a nod to its rise and place in the world. It has held on to its image of being the “Switzerland of Asia” – maintaining political neutrality in an ever complex and conflict-ridden world. That’s a status that is much tougher to achieve than it sounds.

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 Singapore was founded in the midst of political rupture, and thrived in one of the most complicated regions in the world. It has used its extensive experience to nurture talent with sophisticated world views. It has never let its size stand in the way of international outlook and establishing itself in the world. And, of course, the late Lee Kuan Yew would scoff at any hint of insularity. Lee was a global player and so is the nation he founded.

The late Lee Kuan Yew would scoff at any hint of insularity. Lee was a global player and so is the nation he founded

South Korea, which was once the weakest of the four dragons, has achieved quite a lot. Despite its very volatile politics – all that political purging is hard for most to comprehend – and problems that continue to linger economically, it has made tremendous strides. Its growth in soft power has raised its international profile and influence.

South Korea went after the world’s heart: cultivating the international appeal of its popular culture. K-pop aside, the clearest indication that South Korea really is breaking new ground is its move to ban its notorious 68-hour working week earlier this year.

In spite of its lingering political problems – poor governance, political conflict and polarisation – the country has managed to knock 16 hours off its working-hour limit after years of battling very feisty businesses. It’s a milestone that indicates people’s well-being is beginning to take precedence and is no longer treated as a luxury.

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Taiwan has been down in the dumps for quite a long time – its economic woes feeding its political woes. Progress might be too strong a word, but Taiwan has made very smart investments, especially in technology, innovation, research and development.

With the backing of the big dragon, how did we manage to lose our edge?

This is something Hong Kong is just beginning to learn, quite painfully, that we haven’t done enough of. Political woes are many and economic stagnation has been especially devastating for this little dragon.

For all its problems, Taipei has maintained its place in the world – it knows how to walk the political tightrope.

No place is without its problems. Some dealt with theirs better than others. With the backing of the big dragon, how did we manage to lose our edge? Have we become stuck in a parochial mentality? Have we become too bogged down with petty politics? What can we learn from the rest of the pack?

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