Lee Kuan Yew's lessons for Hong Kong

January 21, 2015 13:06
Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew says it doesn't take much effort for China to support or suppress Hong Kong. Photo: Internet

Lee Kuan Yew's deepest fear is that young Singaporeans will take the prosperity and growth the island state is now enjoying as a given.

Lee, 91, is worried that the next generation may lose the perseverance and stamina that have shaped today’s Singapore.

This concern has led him to become a prolific commentator after he stepped down as prime minister in 1990. He has written several books, including two volumes of memoirs.

Lee thinks it behooves him to share with youngsters his experience and thoughts in nurturing and leading Singapore to its global eminence, since everything its people enjoy today, from law and order, personal safety and social stability to economic advancement, is the hard-won result of a decent and efficient government that cannot be taken for granted.

Singapore’s ascent from a tiny city state to a global economic and financial powerhouse offers substantial experience to learn from.

In his 2011 book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, a compilation of more than a dozen interviews he had with journalists at The Straits Times, a semi-mouthpiece for the government, Lee reels off all his insights into governance as well as observations of China and Hong Kong.

The rivalry between Singapore and Hong Kong has been a source of inspiration to many.

Lee said he envies Hong Kong for not having to set aside money, personnel and other resources for defense and diplomacy, areas that Singapore has been forced to prioritize since independence in 1965.

Singapore’s national defense budget is equal to more than 6 percent of its gross domestic product, which was US$298 billion in 2013. It has more than 71,000 military personnel – costly to a small economy.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, does not have such a burden. It is also free from all sorts of diplomatic and territorial security issues and can make use of the money and resources saved to focus on the economy and the livelihood of its people.

Lee has long been a big fan of Hong Kong’s service sector, especially the efficiency and friendliness of the city’s small business owners, who always make an effort to cater to their customers’ needs.

He recalls that he decided to have a suit tailored during his first visit to Hong Kong in the late 1950s.

“I was measured in the morning, fitted in the afternoon, and the suit was delivered that night,” he said.

"It made a deep impression on me. Singapore tailors do not work at that speed."

Yet, his compliments do not extend to Hong Kong’s tycoons and magnates, especially when it comes to their vision and business philosophy.

Lee said one of Hong Kong's great advantages is the abundant inflow of experienced and well-funded entrepreneurs who fled communist rule in the decades before the mainland's reforms and opening up -- a talent pool that Singapore never had.

But he regretted the fact that the second and third generations of their families have lost their heads in a rush to reap quick property gains since the 1990s.

Lee mentioned Li Ka-shing in one interview and pointed out that Li’s conglomerate was unable to create a single hit product that could be sold worldwide.

Li's business empire of real estate, ports, supermarkets, telecommunications firms and public utilities was just built on “following the trends to enter the most profitable sectors rather than foresight or innovation”, he said.

Lee’s remarks can sometimes be slightly off the mark, but looking at Hong Kong’s economic fundamentals, it’s safe to say that outside the property sector, the city has very little to show in the way of prize assets on a global scale.

Many offspring of the city’s business titans -- usually resourceful and well educated -- choose to remain in the comfort zone of the property sector, when they should have leveraged their capabilities to venture into new domains.

The Hong Kong economy as a whole is thus encumbered with the periodical vicissitudes of the property sector, while Singapore has cultivated vibrant pharmaceutical, electronics, oil refining and petrochemical industries at its carefully planned Jurong Industrial Estate and adjoining artificial island.

Shell and ExxonMobil run their most advanced oil refinery facilities there, while Rolls-Royce assembles turbofan engines in Singapore for jumbo jets like the Boeing 787 and AirBus A380.

Perhaps the only “edge” Hong Kong possesses that can never be taken by its arch-rival is favorable policies from the central government, as when Beijing spoon-fed Hong Kong several measures to support the economy after the SARS crisis in 2003.

Lee is often asked whether China’s rise will complicate or even endanger Singapore’s standing.

His answer is simple: if China is offended, there’s no need for Beijing to invade Singapore; all it needs to do is tighten its grip on trade or market access to the island's disadvantage.

By the same token, Lee points out that it doesn't take much effort for China to either support or suppress Hong Kong, and pragmatic Hongkongers all know who the real boss is.

In this sense, Lee is pessimistic about democracy and constitutional reform in the special administrative region.

He cites Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the first post-handover chief secretary, who resigned from her post in 2001, as an example to support his contention that any attempt to shield Hong Kong from Beijing’s interference, to reason with Beijing for more democracy or to preserve the colonial way of doing things is bound to be futile.

The writing was already on the wall when the Union Jack came down in 1997.

For Hongkongers who fear losing their identity and values when doing business with the mainland, Lee's thoughts on China's newfound confidence are relevant.

When asked whether his country, in which ethnic Chinese make up about three-quarters of the population, should look up to Beijing in all respects, Lee’s response was a straightforward “no”.

He said China has already become conceited even before getting rich, and with its economic muscle, it will “treat you with condescension”.

Lee praised Lim Sau Hoong (林少芬), an award-winning Singaporean designer and businesswoman, who would travel weekly between the two countries rather than stationing herself in Beijing when her business ties with China intensified.

Lim’s rationale is that once you open an office in China, your clients there will regard you as one of them and expect you to behave and think like them. They will push you to rush the designing and decision-making process that ought to be given time and devotion, she said.

Lee gave his hearty approval to Lim’s insistence on maintaining her Singaporean identity by keeping a subtle, safe distance from China.

Perhaps Hongkongers can be inspired by her message.

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Lee Kuan Yew (right) says Hong Kong's tycoons and their offspring have taken the easy way out by relying on property to boost their wealth, without helping to bring innovation to the city's economy. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer