16 February 2019
There is a gulf between the effective power of the Hong Kong chief executive and his government (left) and the Singapore prime minister and his government. Photos: HK govt, Istana
There is a gulf between the effective power of the Hong Kong chief executive and his government (left) and the Singapore prime minister and his government. Photos: HK govt, Istana

Why the Singapore way will never be a cure for HK’s woes

Leung Chun-ying must envy Lee Hsien Loong, not just because Lee runs his Facebook page far better than he does.

While nubile young women, including at least one porn star, popped up as Leung’s friends on his page, which he started just two months ago, Lee has accumulated over 930,000 likes on his page, which he has been updating since 2012.

And while bulldozers and sand barges were soon at work creating new chunks of land out of the sea after the Singapore prime minister unveiled aggressive plans for further reclamation, a fierce kerfuffle sprang up after the Hong Kong chief executive suggested rezoning a small portion – 2.5 percent — of the city’s vast country parks to house a million extra people over the next few decades.

Hong Kong’s latest land use controversy has now emerged in Kennedy Town.

Residents there were annoyed to learn of the government’s plan to build housing blocks on the site of a tiny public garden – a temporary one, at that – and vowed to challenge it, never mind that the garden is little visited most of the time and a much larger park is just a 10-minute walk away.

This is basically how things are happening in Hong Kong right now.

When the public complains that its per capita living space is just half of that of Singaporeans (161 square feet versus 323 sq ft in 2013), the government proposes reclamation as an option, but environmentalists are soon up in arms and preparing to file a judicial review, as the plan could threaten the habitat of Chinese white dolphins and other maritime creatures.

The government then turns its sights on undeveloped swaths of land in the New Territories, but the objections are even more tempestuous there.

Villagers say they want to preserve their farmland, while indigenous inhabitants and the Heung Yee Kuk say they will die to defend the men’s right to build a small house each.

Then we hear the familiar rhetoric that not an inch of land in our country parks can be invaded, for fear the greenery will be nibbled away bit by bit.

Lacking feasible alternatives, the authorities pick a public-private development model to tap the land banks of developers as a means of expediting the supply of housing — but before long, there is a wave of accusations that the government is transferring public resources to private pockets.

There seems to be a vicious circle with no way out.

Who is to blame?

While Lee’s government commands an absolute mandate to lead after his People’s Action Party won a landslide victory in the September election — an indication that Singaporeans choose to remain obedient in exchange for prosperity — many projects rolled out by the Hong Kong government remain blueprints on paper, since Hongkongers are suspicious of an evil purpose behind every policy.

Naturally, Hong Kong’s post-handover leaders have looked to the city’s long-time Southeast Asian rival for pointers on governance.

Unfortunately, the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, had a sour experience when he tried to take a leaf out of Singapore’s book in addressing two of Hong Kong’s chronic issues.

Tung launched an ambitious scheme in 1997, modeled on the Lion City’s world-renowned public housing program, to house 70 percent of Hong Kong’s working class in 10 years by building an average of 85,000 flats a year.

No one can deny his good intentions, but one thing he failed to take into account when trying to learn from Singapore was that maximizing supply must not be done at the cost of hundreds of thousands of property owners, as many were still servicing their mortgages.

In contrast to Hong Kong, Singapore doesn’t have a sizable private residential market, as a result of Lee Kuan Yew’s islandwide public housing program, which has been in place for five decades.

The 85,000-flat scheme could have delivered some positive results, but Tung’s plans were almost immediately undone by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which was followed a few years later by the pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Everything happened like a perfect storm, which led to the eventual meltdown of the Hong Kong property market in 2003.

In the face of the hollowing out of Hong Kong’s economy, when the city was in danger of being reduced to nothing more than a vassal and puppet of China economically, Tung again thought Singapore could be a source of inspiration.

Singapore nurtures its pillar sectors – advanced petrochemicals, electronics and other high-tech industries in particular – through government-led planning (designated funds and plot allocation, tax incentives and so on) and state-owned investors like Temasek Holdings.

Hong Kong, renowned for its policy of non-intervention in the economy, has none of these, but Tung thought that shouldn’t hold him back.

His grand vision for Hong Kong as a leading node in information technology and medical sciences came to naught after several controversial government-led flagship projects built with much fanfare and preferential treatment, like Cyberport and Hong Kong Science Park, failed to jump-start the territory’s high-tech sector.

The lesson is that it’s hard for a financial and tertiary-industry-centric city economy with a small government to develop into another Silicon Valley, something that London and New York have largely failed to do.

Hong Kong is no exception.

Perhaps, at the core, Tung and Leung fancy Singapore’s authoritarian model of governance and the efficiency and unrestricted powers that come with it, and they want to clone the system in the entirely different political ecosystem of Hong Kong.

Unfortunately for them, while the checks and balances are still there and while the far less obedient Hongkongers are still determined to keep the nose of the government out of their private business, the Singapore way can never be a cure for Hong Kong’s woes.

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EJ Insight writer

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