Singapore is a topic of great interest to Hongkongers of all political inclinations.
Some see the Lion City as a role model.
Others regard it as a vivid example of everything Hong Kong should avoid, from a paper-qualifications-based meritocracy to authoritarian governance.
If you agree to trade democracy for prosperity, then our progressive neighbor in Southeast Asia appears to be a laudably livable place – just compare its far more spacious living conditions with Hong Kong’s ubiquitous pigeonholes.
But livability is far more than a big home.
The Global Liveable Cities Index, released late last month, ranked Hong Kong as the most livable city in Asia (sixth worldwide out of 64 urban centers examined), outpacing Singapore, which slid to seventh spot overall.
Note that the ranking was compiled by the Asia Competitiveness Institute at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
The study, done every three years, found that Singapore came in ahead of Hong Kong in domestic security and stability and political governance but trailed it in economic vibrancy and competitiveness, environmental friendliness and sustainability.
Needless to say, a vital element the Singaporean think tank won’t point out is that you can mock and insult Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to your heart’s content, but you would be foolhardy to try to do that to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Hong Kong’s resilient media industry and vibrant online forums contrast sharply with Singapore’s official propaganda and government-regulated public discourse in cyberspace.
Now, we have some personal observations to offer concerning daily life in the two cities, if you still need more convincing that you are better off living in Hong Kong.
Our city’s many virtues are somehow taken as a given by locals and critics.
The first thing is, don’t expect the ease and reliability of Hong Kong’s public transport system when you travel within Singapore.
In July, Singapore’s railway network experienced its worst-ever service breakdown when trains on its two major arteries – the entire East-West Line and the North-South Line – came to a complete halt for several hours, starting during the evening peak time on the same day.
Blackouts occurred in domino fashion as the power supply at stations along the two lines was suspended.
“No lights, no air con, not moving, stuck for hours,” one furious commuter complained to the Straits Times, an English-language daily widely seen as close to the government.
More than 400,000 passengers were forced to divert their journeys, reported Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language daily from the same media stable.
The two affected lines are roughly equivalent to the Island Line and the Tsuen Wan Line in Hong Kong’s MTR network.
Now, Hongkongers have practically zero tolerance for MTR breakdowns: there’s always a public uproar whenever there is a service delay.
No one knows how the public and media would respond if two major lines were to be shut down at the same time.
The scenario is just unimaginable in Hong Kong.
So, let’s acknowledge the truth and applaud the MTR for its ultra-reliable and efficient train service, which has become the envy of many other global metropolises.
The MTR has never had a service failure of that magnitude, and don’t forget that it carries more commuters on a more extensive network than its Singapore counterpart does.
The July episode was not an isolated one.
In October, the power supply went out at seven stations on the North East Line in Singapore.
Then, at the end of last month, the North-South Line experienced yet another disruption, this one lasting two hours.
Frequent severe disruptions have forced Singapore to look to Hong Kong to learn from the world’s most admired metro system.
Singapore’s state-run Media Corp. ran a series of feature reports last month on its English and Chinese channels about the MTR’s operations and maintenance work.
MTR operations director Jacob Kam Chak-pui told Singapore reporters that the black “incident box” in the rail network’s central control room indicates the number of seconds that have elapsed when an incident occurs, and normally most problems can be solved within two minutes.
Passengers will hardly notice a small disruption has just occurred.
Hong Kong’s MTR system operates 2.8 million train trips per year with a 99.9 percent on-time rate, an unrivalled record worldwide.
Hongkongers are also spoiled by the city’s iconic Octopus card.
Many have become accustomed to being able to get by without having cash in their pockets.
By contrast, Singapore is still stuck in the 20th century when it comes to smart cards and cashless transactions.
Singapore did introduce its own swipe-and-go card, called EZ-Link, after Hong Kong’s Octopus set the global benchmark, but more than a decade since its launch, EZ-Link still trails behind: its scope is largely limited to public transport.
While numerous mom-and-pop cha chaan teng in Hong Kong have embraced Octopus, many retailers in Singapore still do not support cashless payments using EZ-Link.
And, to add injury to insult, topping up your EZ-Link card at convenience stores like 7-Eleven is subject to a minimum service charge of 25 Singapore cents (18 US cents).
Many first-time visitors may be amazed by Singapore’s tidiness, verdant greenery and the marvels of some mega man-made attractions like Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands casino-resort.
But some longtime residents feel it’s a rather boring city without much that is intrinsically attractive in local culture, pastimes and entertainment.
“It feels just like a city in southern China, without much exotic excitement, and the climate is just too hot,” a graduate student from Beijing at the National University of Singapore told me.
“Singapore lacks the typical vibrancy of a civil society as seen in Hong Kong.
“Perhaps this is the result of its people staying too obedient and the government maintaining a firm grip on almost everything.
“Political debate is still a taboo, and protests are only allowed inside a designated park under heavy police surveillance.
“Following a riot in the Little India area, the Lee Hsien Loong administration simply banned late-night consumption of alcohol in all public venues — one can imagine the limitations on the freedom Singaporeans have, even in their private lives.”
A final thing to note is that a minimum of two years of national service is mandatory for all male citizens.
After that, they have an annual reservist obligation. They will be called up for 40 days of refresher training per year until they reach the age of 40.
Fancy living in Singapore?
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