There’s a tendency among some of Hong Kong media, when they feel the urge to lash out at government policies they don’t like, to sing paeans to Singapore and put their own city down. They will say that Hong Kong is lagging behind its progressive Southeast Asian neighbor in terms of economic development and efficiency of governance.
Some statistics may bear out this accusation. Back in 1997, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product stood at US$179 billion, almost two times that of Singapore, but last year Singapore boosted the figure to US$295.7 billion, surpassing Hong Kong’s US$273.7 billion, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.
In per capita GDP, Singapore surpassed Hong Kong in 2003 and last year’s figure, US$55,568, was bigger than Hong Kong’s level by more than a quarter, although some experts point out that Singapore authorities exclude imported labor, totaling more than 1.3 million last year, in the calculation.
Hong Kong and Singapore bear many similarities in economic structure, reliance on finance and trade, as well as size of territory and population.
But while Hong Kong is often caught in political wrangles, Singapore is making continuous strides. Some say Singapore is not just nibbling at Hong Kong’s heels, it has already beaten Hong Kong in the race.
But Kwong Kin Ming, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says most observers who compare the two cities have little knowledge of the vast differences between them. And there’s very little that Hong Kong can learn from its neighbor in the aspect of governance, Kwong tells the Hong Kong Economic Journal.
His remarks echo the view of South China Morning Post columnist Philip Bowring, who notes in a recent article that Singapore is a poor role model for Hong Kong.
Both Kwong and Bowring believe that meritocracy guides the Singaporean style of governance. But the dark side of this philosophy is that it considers the masses as largely ignorant and benighted, and as such, should be subject to the rule of the elite.
As a hybrid authoritarian regime, Singaporean leaders, from Lee Kuan Yew to his son, the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, have natural hostility towards freedom and they tend to use the city state’s tiny territory, lack of resources as well as potential external threat as grounds to justify their de facto dictatorship. Decades of education imbued with the concept of meritocracy have helped developed a paternalistic ideology that run deep among senior officials and ordinary Singaporeans.
Just as Bowring notes, the downside of Singapore’s authoritarian system is plain to anyone with the remotest interest in free speech and assembly, and keeping the nose of the government out of their personal affairs and private business.
That difference remains the cornerstone of Hong Kong society.
Hong Kong’s idea of government is based on the principle of positive non-interventionism, which gives impetus to the creativity of individuals and the private sector. Singapore is exactly the opposite in this regard.
In the early part of the 21st century, when Singapore wanted to nurture its cultural and creative industries, some observers argued that a genuinely creative Singapore could not be brought into being without first changing its politics.
In looking up to Singapore, many in Hong Kong have voiced concern that constant political wrangles are polarizing society, and as a result, economic development is taking a battering.
There’s probably some basis for such fears, but amid the din of politics, Hong Kong remains a vibrant economy. The city continues to top many economic rankings, including the world’s most competitive economy in 2011 and 2012, according to the International Institute for Management Development based in Lausanne, Switzerland. (In 2013, Hong Kong ranked third after the United States and Switzerland while Singapore was in the fifth place.)
According to Kwong, the real edge Singapore may have over Hong Kong is its status as an independent nation. This difference is becoming more evident as Beijing appears bent on tightening its grasp on the special administrative region.
Singapore is free from the ambiguities of the “one country, two systems” arrangement, while Hong Kong officials have to spare time to deal with the complexities in the SAR’s relationship with the Chinese government.
The scope of power of the Singapore government is much broader and clearer, and this has allowed the nation’s leaders to formulate pertinent policies and ensure speedy implementation.
Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore can promptly respond to challenges and grab opportunities without having to worry about what Beijing will say. Also, because of its sovereignty, Singapore has complete say on its international relations; it’s no secret that the city state is a close ally of the United States in the region.
While Singapore can swiftly rezone some of its military areas to pave the way for Changi Airport expansion, Hong Kong cannot even allocate the People’s Liberation Army barracks near Hung Hom for the use of the Polytechnic University, which is facing a worsening land shortage problem, because officials are hesitant to offend Beijing.
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