From Lion City to Lion Rock: What HK could learn from Singapore

July 20, 2020 08:27
The Singaporean state plays a more proactive, steering role in its economy. Photo: Reuters

Singapore’s recent election saw the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) down by 8.62% in their share of the popular vote, as compared with the 69.86% won in 2015. Its primary opposition – the Workers’ Party – gained four seats, with an unprecedentedly packed electoral field consisting of 12 parties. Some have claimed that it’s the end of the PAP’s firm grip over the Lion City; yet irrespective of the results, Singapore offers plentiful insights for Hong Kong, as to how a polity with restricted civil liberties and heavy state presence in all domains of life could nevertheless flourish.

Firstly, Singapore’s ruling party adheres rigorously to a meritocratic ethos. Despite decades of faltering, inhibited political contenders, the party has successfully cultivated a pipeline of competent technocrats stepped in expertise in both governance and other fields. Party leadership vets candidates on the basis of their professional competence, understanding of local and international politics, and fieldwork experience within constituencies. Admission processes – more competitive than those of leading scholarships – test for both prospective candidates’ devotion to the country and the party. The latter is not assessed via arcane “loyalty tests” or performative pledges – fetishished seemingly by the local Establishment here, but via examination of candidates’ genuine comprehension of the party’s founding principles.

The PAP is by no means perfect – its ignominious campaign choices and handling of the COVID-19 crisis have been reflected in the surge in opposition support in this election. Yet its five-decade-long track record of broad governance successes exemplify the viability of political accountability without significant external contestation. Hong Kong’s quasi-Presidential system uniquely allows for greater flexibility when it comes to political appointments – our administration should make use of such opportunities to recruit on the basis of technocratic expertise and governance merit, as opposed to ideological purity.

Secondly, unlike Hong Kong, the Singaporean state plays a more proactive, steering role in its economy. Many of its top listed companies are partially or fully state-owned, and yet are granted no additional perks or benefits as compared with their private rivals, thereby not running into the trap of deterring private investment and firm entry. With Temasek Holdings and GIC Private Limited steering the country’s reserves and holding significant share of the country’s assets, the government possesses crucial bargaining power against Multi-national Corporations – a virtue that Hong Kong sadly lacks. With the government owning 90% of the country’s land and a de facto monopoly over residential housing, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats house 81% of its residents, including many amongst its working-class. The safety net is bolstered by a diversified economy with plentiful jobs for low-skilled labour.

Singapore has its economic woes, too – its economy has stagnated significantly under COVID-19, and, in compensating for its shrinking birth rates, is increasingly reliant upon foreign workers – some of which are subject to rather dubious treatment. Yet it does act as a showcase of what measured governmental interventionism and broadly accountable economic involvement of the state could achieve. Despite having a far smaller land mass than Hong Kong, the government has broadly managed to avoid mass homelessness and citizens living under squalid, cramped conditions – both of which are problems endemic and causes of significant social disillusionment in Hong Kong.

Some have noted that Singapore’s strength is also its hamartia – the persisting influence of the Executive in the management and decisions in judiciary institutions seemingly leaves little room for genuine separation of powers. These criticisms are well-founded: yet Singapore remains a highly attractive site for foreign investment and corporations, largely because despite the interdependence between the three branches, judiciary decisions and behaviours are largely predictable and determinate, defined in accordance with well-established norms. If Hong Kong, too, could replicate Singapore’s legal certainty and determinacy, whilst its judiciary may not live up to the ideal conception of rule of law, there yet remains much room for mutually productive and lucrative commercial activity.

Hong Kong could never become Singapore – nor should it seek to. The two cities possess highly distinct historical heritage and socio-cultural norms. To unreservedly fetishise stability and efficient governance at the expense of what makes Hong Kong click – its vibrant, flourishing intellectual scene and bustling civil society – would be both myopic and delusional. It behoves Beijing and Hong Kong alike to recognise that the Pearl of the Orient does not shine as a mouthpiece for a political monolith. It shines best in different colours, its true colours. The Lion Rock should learn from, but never live in the shadows of, the Lion City, or the Forbidden City.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review