Hong Kong people, in particular the young generation, believe that our way of life defines who we are.
But while we hold fast to the city’s core values - democracy, human rights, rule of law, judicial independence, etc – as essential elements in maintaining our standing as a world city and financial center, the experience of Singapore, a paragon of capitalist virtues, points to a different approach.
We are in no way belittling our core values, but for our thriving Southeast Asian neighbor, freedom and democracy may not be imperative to make a city a global economic dynamo.
No freedom or democracy, but so what?
Observers lament that Beijing’s unsolicited interpretation of the Basic Law to strip separatists of their posts in the local legislature has sounded the death knell for Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
Yet when it comes to Singapore, perhaps no one believes that courts there, given its government’s autocratic reputation, can and do adjudicate politically sensitive cases on their own motion.
In 2010, the New York Times was forced to pay US$114,000 to settle a libel case filed by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and this speaks volumes about the state of judicial independence and free speech in the Lion City.
The incumbent leader, and his late father Lee Kuan Yew, waged a series of legal battles against foreign news outlets whose reports and comments were deemed “malicious”.
The Lee family never lost a single case thanks to a little cooperation from judges in the island nation.
How teenage dissident Amos Yee Pang Sang (余澎杉) was swiftly brought to trial, found guilty and given a jail sentence after he posted a vitriolic video on YouTube against the elder Lee is but another telling indicator of the status quo in Singapore.
For weeks, the 17-year-old Yee was put in a cell for the mentally disabled with his hands and legs tied up, and he was not allowed to sleep.
Also, the Hong Kong government’s subtle purge of pan-democrats can be considered “lenient” compared to the way Singapore authorities treat the opposition.
Though universal suffrage is not in sight, voters in Hong Kong can at least send their own representatives to the district councils and the legislature.
By comparison, Singapore’s election system is elaborately designed, if not rigged, to ensure victory for the ruling People’s Action Party in every election.
Freedom of speech and assembly, media scrutiny and other checks and balances are largely non-existent in Singapore but Hongkongers still have all of these today.
Capital and investors unfazed
That said, all these “adversities” never deter international investors from channeling their capital to Singapore or establishing regional footholds there.
Reporters Sans Frontières placed Singapore in the 153rd place in its Press Freedom Index report last year, but Google, hailed as a beacon of information freedom, has just inaugurated its brand new Asia-Pacific headquarters in the tiny nation this month.
Official figures show roughly a third of Fortune 500 companies operate their Asian/Southeast Asian headquarters in Singapore.
Cumulatively, more than 4,200 multinationals have chosen Singapore to host their regional headquarters. Hong Kong’s corresponding figure is a dismal 1,389, according to a survey by American consultancy firm Cushman & Wakefield.
Hong Kong has retreated two spots to the ninth place in the latest ranking of 138 economies by the World Economic Forum, while Singapore remains in the runner-up position for the sixth year running.
Singapore has also edged up one spot into the world’s top three, dislodging Hong Kong, on City of London think tank Z/Yen Group’s 2015 Global Financial Centres Index.
While the government pats itself on the back since Hong Kong is still high up on the list, many fear that it’s just a matter of time before “Nylonkong” (a term coined by Time magazine in 2008 for the world’s biggest financial hubs, namely New York, London and Hong Kong) becomes “Nylonpore”.
Another example that may also evoke some sober irony is that when the University of Hong Kong is entangled in rows over senior appointments and governance, the National University of Singapore, which supposedly enjoys lesser institutional autonomy under an authoritarian regime, has shot up its international rankings: it’s No. 12 on the latest Quacquarelli Symonds list while HKU is in the 27th spot.
What really matters
Our old-time rival has become a counter-example to the assumption that competitiveness and economic development can only go hand in hand with democratization.
If you think China’s economic triumphs do not merit emulation by a city economy like Hong Kong, then the Singapore experience fits well into our status quo: the stalemate in constitutional and democratic development should not hold us back from working to improve the economy.
To sum up, we believe that in the global race for leadership in finance and economy, the keys to competitiveness are as follows:
- Efficiency from policymaking to implementation. How many more years can Hong Kong afford to idle through, as seen in the Kai Tak and West Kowloon fiascos?
- Transparency in governance and a level-playing field. Can the way the SAR government makes decisions, like not granting a free-to-air TV license to an applicant that has well exceeded the threshold, guarantee the peace of mind of investors?
- Corruption-free. Hong Kong’s former No. 2 official, Rafael Hui Si-yan, is now behind bars for bribery while former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is under investigation for misconduct. The incumbent Leung Chun-ying is also haunted by a conflict-of-interest scandal regarding some hefty payments he has received.
No wonder that Hong Kong’s ranking has slid to 18th on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Singapore is in the 8th place.
- English proficiency. The use of the global lingua franca in legal, business and finance is vital, but the city’s proficiency in English has seen a marked decline since 1997 while average Singaporeans seldom stutter when speaking the language.
- Social stability. An obedient population and government’s rigorous law enforcement eliminate the likelihood of any upheaval in Singapore. Hong Kong is equally laudable in personal safety and social order, but the bitter polemics of politics and escalation of protests and confrontations have increasingly become a big uncertainty. Business people don’t like uncertainty.
- Innovation readiness. The reason why Frank Wang Tao (汪滔) chose to leave Hong Kong after his graduation from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology had nothing to do with the impasse over universal suffrage but the government’s apathy in nurturing tech startups.
Wang went to Shenzhen and founded the firm that now rules the roost in the global drone market – DJI.
In the area of research, Hong Kong is a frontrunner, but sadly, high rent, insufficient government funding and a society that pursues speculation and near-term profits – not the perceived erosion of our freedom and democracy – are driving away local entrepreneurs to Singapore and mainland cities, not to mention anything about attracting talent from overseas.
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