Both the Singapore and Hong Kong governments have recently launched schemes to attract non-local talent. Photo: AFP
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Hong Kong vs Singapore talent battle recalls rivalry between 2 ancient Chinese states

  • During the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC), China was divided into multiple states that competed with each other
  • The Jin state’s poaching of Chu state’s talent led to a saying that refers to one entity losing its talented people to another

In my two decades in Hong Kong, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rolled my eyes whenever the city’s rivalry with Singapore comes up in conversation.

I do not see the same fixation in Singapore. It would appear that the incessant hand-wringing, surely a sign of a deep-seated insecurity, is one-sided. Full disclosure: I am Singaporean.

The latest manifestation of this supposed contest involves schemes launched by the two governments to attract non-local talent.

The mainstream discourse in Singapore calmly reiterates that the pie is big enough for both cities, though many of its citizens are rightly concerned about increased competition in the job market.

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In contrast, the radars of Hong Kong officials and pundits have been pinging non-stop, with official speeches, media outlets and YouTube channels going into a frantic battle mode, framing it as a zero-sum game of existential consequence for Hong Kong.

Singapore and Hong Kong need more workers than their own populations can provide. They don’t have hinterlands to meet their manpower needs.

Hong Kong is a city in China but a quirk of history has restricted the unfettered movement of people between China and its special administrative region. Singapore is an independent city state where the entire country is just that one city.

Hence, the need to attract workers from elsewhere, especially the elite in certain chosen fields who can supposedly add value to the economy.

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The situation was somewhat similar during the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) when China was divided into multiple states that competed with each other.

In 547BC, Shengzi, a native of Cai, was returning home following a stint as an envoy to the state of Jin. He stopped by the state of Chu, where he called on its prime minister, who asked him about the Jin government.

At the time, Jin and Chu were two major states, in the north and south, respectively, that were keen to expand their power. Shengzi told the prime minister that in Jin, not only were its grand masters (the second-highest ranking officials) able and virtuous, they were men of talent deserving of promotion to ministers.

And who were these talented men? Shengzi listed several individuals who were all natives of Chu. “Just as wolfberries, the wood of the yellow catalpa and leather produced in Chu were exported to Jin, Chu possesses talented men but fails to use them, resulting in their employment by Jin,” he said.

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This exchange tells us a few things: there was trade between states; citizens were free to travel to another state to seek employment; and the contributions of non-local talent were welcomed, even at the highest level in government.

From this story came the saying “the talent of Chu are employed by Jin”, referring to one entity losing its talented people to another.

Even as early as 2,500 years ago, ancient China’s “talent market” wasn’t very different from the present day. Make it worth their while and people will come.