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Hongkongers’ Singapore envy reflects frustration with ‘uncrossable’ housing hurdle

It is ironic that successive local governments’ willingness to learn from city state has now turned into pressure on authorities to right the ship

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 8:58pm

What does it mean when Hongkongers prefer Singapore’s government instead of their own?

A University of Hong Kong poll recently ranked the city state at the top when respondents were asked how they felt about different administrations.

The poll did not provide details of what the indicators were, but it was not long before some people came up with the assumption that the Singapore government had a better housing policy.

Why are Hongkongers obsessed with Singapore?

There is some wisdom in that, but it is also true there are many who hate to compare Hong Kong with Singapore because of fundamental differences.

Indeed, Hongkongers take pride in the many freedoms they enjoy, but the generally better living conditions in Singapore have increasingly become the collective envy of people here. This is partly thanks to Hong Kong’s successive leaders showing admiration for, and interest in learning from, Singapore in many aspects, including tackling the housing problem.

How ironic that this now seems to have turned into pressure on our government.

Take a look at the latest developments in the property market: one record-high transaction after another until the most astonishing one – a government-subsidised, 592 sq ft flat being sold for more than HK$10 million (US$1.3 million), despite the recently announced cooling measures.

“Never say record high,” has become a popular saying.

Why Hong Kong is no Singapore in housing matters and will struggle to catch up

The trend has prompted immediate calls for the government to get tougher on the resale of subsidised housing, because taxpayers’ money is meant to boost affordability for lower-income families, not to help them flip property on the open market for big profits. Housing minister Frank Chan Fan told lawmakers last week his bureau was studying the suggestion.

On the other hand, the ongoing public consultation by the task force responsible for looking for land does not seem to be making much progress yet.

How do we tame this runaway property market and where can the cure be found, if there is one at all? Housing is at the centre of everything, hanging in the air unresolved and haunting every administration.

It is even seen as a contributing factor in the fall from grace of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

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It was saddening to see Tsang handcuffed and in a wheelchair when he was sent back to prison on Friday following a week in a hospital custodial ward after losing his case at the Court of Appeal. He is now pursuing a final appeal at the city’s highest court to overturn his conviction for misconduct in public office.

The past week saw one Facebook post going viral – it was by New People’s Party chairwoman and lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who described Tsang as her “big brother”. In the post, titled “Tsang’s Uncrossable Hurdle”, Ip recalled a private dinner at Government House with Tsang, the chief executive in 2010.

When Tsang spoke of his difficulties in looking for a proper house after retirement, Ip was curious. “Don’t you already own a property on MacDonnell Road?” she asked him, referring to his home in the upmarket Mid-Levels area.

Opinion: Can Hong Kong be the envy of Singapore once more?

Ip recalled Tsang giving her a “disdainful look” in reply, indicating that he needed a bigger place.

The lesson she drew from it was a reminder for her former colleagues in the government to be more aware of the “public-position sequela” and to be prepared to go “back to an ordinary person’s life” after leaving office.

It also revealed the hard truth that even Tsang, as chief executive then, knew only too well he would not be able to afford a spacious home in Hong Kong once he moved out of his official residence.

But it was his quest for a bigger and relatively affordable retirement home across the border that landed him in trouble. He had planned to rent a penthouse in Shenzhen, owned by a company chaired by mainland businessman Bill Wong Cho-bau, at a time when Tsang was in charge of approving licence applications from radio station Wave Media, of which Wong was a majority shareholder.

What if he had just settled for retired life as an ordinary citizen in a small Hong Kong flat?

The university poll may only reflect public sentiment in certain quarters, but it serves as a reminder to the government about not allowing this crucial matter of affordable housing to turn into Hong Kong’s “uncrossable hurdle”.