Hong Kong has always felt the need to compare itself with Singapore. Whenever something is ranked internationally – be it economic competitiveness, airports or universities – Hong Kong and the Lion City will inevitably be pitted against one another. The most recent issue to be subject to scrutiny is housing.
Following Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s announcement that she wanted to apply some of Singapore’s housing strategies in Hong Kong, there have been news articles and television programmes commenting on the issue. Naturally, the sneering at Singapore started almost at once but, by and large, the attitude in Hong Kong seems to be a willingness to learn. And learn it should, not just from Singapore, but from anywhere that can offer solutions to Hong Kong’s housing woes.
There’s no shame in emulating others. Japan learned and adopted modern government, laws and industry from the West in the late 19th century. Singapore learned, and is still learning, best practices from all over the world, including Hong Kong.
So did King Wuling of Zhao during the Warring States period (475-221BC). The sizeable state of Zhao, which covered parts of present-day Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi, was so weak that even small neighbouring states were making incursions into its territory. To its northwest, north and northeast were various nomadic peoples who often raided Zhao’s borders.
Observing the battles between the nomads and his own troops, Wuling came to the conclusion that the invaders always won because they had two advantages over Zhao’s soldiers. The first was sartorial; in battle, the nomads wore narrow sleeves and short tunics with belts. In contrast, the Zhao battle gear had billowing sleeves and cumbersome robes that stymied mobility.
The second advantage was technical; the nomads had mastered the art of archery on horseback, enjoying greater manoeuvrability than the Zhao soldiers, who rode on chariots and fought with long, unwieldy halberds and spears.
In 307BC, Wuling undertook reforms to strengthen his state. He decreed that everyone in his kingdom, not just the soldiers, had to change to the more streamlined and compact “barbarian dress” of their nomadic foes. He also ordered his troops to learn horseback archery. Initially, the reforms were opposed by conservatives in government, who appealed to tradition and misplaced notions of superiority over the “barbaric” nomads. Wuling persisted, and within a few years, the Zhao army was strong enough to win battles and repel invasions, transforming the state of Zhao into one of the most powerful kingdoms in China.
Hong Kong is not under any threat of foreign invasion, but its strength and potential for greater things are being sapped by astronomical property prices and an angry population, half of whom do not own their homes and cannot afford to do so. Its government should take a leaf from Wuling, who had sufficient humility to learn from other peoples, even those who were his enemies.