Amicable political ties notwithstanding, Hong Kong and Singapore are a perfect pair of frenemies, with the cities squaring off against each other on almost all economic fronts.
Prior to its return to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong used to lead the charge on key parameters such as gross domestic product, but things began shifting in favor of Singapore since then.
The “Emerald of the Southeast” has been outshining the “Pearl of the Orient” on numerous international scoreboards in aspects ranging from livability to technology adoption, with Hong Kong struggling to keep pace.
To discuss these issues, the Hong Kong Economic Journal recently spoke to Andy Hor, a Hong Kong academic who had earlier lived and worked in Singapore for three decades.
According to Hor, who currently serves as vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the key difference between Hong Kong and Singapore is the speed at which things get done in the two places.
“There are always objections to whatever the Hong Kong authorities propose to do… The key to Singapore’s success is that, having identified a goal, the government works to build trust and consensus so that the society can work towards that goal,” Hor told HKEJ.
“Politicization has obviously been a drag on Hong Kong’s efficiency and a distraction from the genuine issues, especially when we should do things quickly rather than procrastinating.”
Hor was born and raised in Hong Kong but is a naturalized Singaporean who spent much of his working life in the Lion City before taking up his present post at HKU.
Previously he held positions such as head of chemistry and vice dean, faculty of science, at HKU’s key regional rival, the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Trust and consensus
“A leader has to set out targets and bring together various sectors and interest groups under a common goal,” says Hor. “When different groups have no political axe to grind, it’s easier to achieve that one vision with one heart.”
People’s trust in the government can only be built if authorities deliver on the targets over the years, rather than missing them, the academic said.
Hor received tertiary education at the Imperial College London and obtained PhDs from Oxford and Yale in the 1980s. He planned to return to Hong Kong in 1984 but decided to change course and head to the NUS where exciting opportunities beckoned in the wake of a merger of two institutions.
Hor’s return to his birthplace came 31 years later in 2015, when he assumed his current five-year post at HKU, responsible for research and development affairs.
Having witnessed firsthand Singapore’s miraculous turnaround since the 1980s, Hor is disappointed that in Hong Kong, the city of his birth, things often appear to be in a stalemate.
He pointed out that a tiny, individual incident can trigger a political tempest and wreak havoc on the credibility of the government.
“Different parties and groups must not be too intransigent when it comes to their own stance or profits, rather, they should bear in mind the common interest of Hong Kong. The government must also be accountable to the people, safeguard the benefits of the community at large, in exchange for people’s trust.”
Hor’s comments aren’t surprising given that Singapore has forged ahead in R&D, shipping, housing, land production and supply as well as industry diversification, giving Hong Kong a good run for its money.
Compared with Singaporeans’ spacious living conditions, more than 270 square feet per capita, an estimate that is believed to be on the conservative side, the space for average Hongkongers – 170 sqf – belongs to another realm.
When measured by population density, one square kilometer of land in Singapore accommodates 10,500 residents, whereas in Hong Kong more than 27,300 people are crammed into the same size of space.
Hor said he finds Hong Kong’s housing situation and living spaces appalling.
“Public housing units of 1,000 to 1,500 square feet are commonplace in Singapore, but homes of this size are called “palaces” in Hong Kong and belong to the luxury segment sold with a fat markup,” he noted.
“Can we expect people who have to squeeze themselves into pigeonholes and shoebox units be happy with the society and status quo?”
Hor revealed that his daughters didn’t come along with him to live in Hong Kong because they didn’t want to give up their capacious living space in Singapore.
“My daughters once visited some schools and residential estates in Hong Kong and they were quite shocked by the cramped spaces everywhere.”
Over the past 100 years Hong Kong reclaimed an aggregate of 7,000 hectares of land from sea, or 6.4 percent of its total landmass, whereas Singapore expanded its size by a fifth within the past 45 years, with total sea reclamation at 14,000 hectares.
“Hong Kong must tap all sources to beef up land supply, be it brownfield sites, country parks, urban redevelopment, Lantau Island, reclamation, etc. Hongkongers have to weigh the pros and cons and make necessary compromises, compromises either in their own vested interest or for environmental conservation, and the government has to plough ahead even if there are objections,” Hor says.
R&D and diversification
Talking about Singapore, the academic notes that the Lion City’s stellar ascent in global rankings has been helped by its worldwide hunt for talent and the government’s lavish financial support for R&D.
Singapore’s total R&D expenditure equals to 2.19 percent of its GDP while Hong Kong’s corresponding figure is at a dismal 0.74 percent.
“In Singapore, funding for a normal research project can be as much as S$200,000 (HK$1.13 million) but we may only get some HK$200,000 in Hong Kong.”
HKU, for instance, receives a lump sum of HK$140 million for R&D from the University Grants Committee, and roughly another HK$300 million from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, donations and other matching funds.
The university still finds itself stretched due to its size and the number of projects waiting to be funded.
Singapore’s strategy for industrial diversification also warrants much emulation.
“The lack of high-valued added, technology-intensive industries in Hong Kong such as energy, IT, biochemistry, environmental engineering, etc means graduates of subjects other than finance or law find it hard to land good jobs. This also strangles local R&D.
“In Singapore, the government pulls all the stops to attract foreign investments to its manufacturing and high-tech sectors. A strategy to offset risks during turmoil,” Hor said, pointing out that the city-state now has some of the world’s most advanced oil refinery, pharmaceutical factory and aeroengine plants.
“The graduates from NUS’ chemical engineering department never have to worry about their career prospects. But HKU has no course in chemical engineering at all.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 28
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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