The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side. Or is it?

by singaporearmchaircritic

Many a times I’ve heard Singaporean professors say, with a tinge of envy, that Singapore is not as blessed as Hong Kong because we do not have mainland China as our “hinterland.” Because the remark was made to a Chinese audience – oft times Chinese officials on “learning trips” to Singapore – it’s hard to tell if the professors were brown-nosing (90% probability) or if they were sincere. Whatever it is, this sort of comment falls squarely into the “cringe-inducing” category by my taxonomy, and I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from shooting off this rejoinder, “Thank heavens China is not Singapore’s hinterland!”

I may be speaking for myself, but this is why I think Singaporeans are not terribly envious of Hong Kong’s proximity to China. The pervasively bad press on China puts us off, and encounters with mainland Chinese in our day to day life have accentuated the sense of us versus them, even for Singaporean Chinese and particularly those of us who are more proficient in English than Mandarin. As it is, the Singapore we live in today is already inundated with Chinese newcomers. Just imagine what happens if China is just next door.

For that matter, neither are many Hongkongers jubilant to have China as their hinterland. Fifteen years after the city’s return to China, more residents than ever have identified themselves as Hongkongers instead of Chinese citizens, and a historic high has lost confidence in the “one country, two systems” model of governance. In the eyes of many Hongkongers, their beloved city, once the Pearl of the Orient, seems to be losing its luster. Some Hongkongers have begun to reminisce about their time under the British with wistful nostalgia. There are even voices calling for Hong Kong’s independence, which supposedly prompted a show of force by the People’s Liberation Army based in Hong Kong.

Post-handover Hong Kong is suffering from existential angst. They can’t change the fact that they are now part of China but want to keep a distance from it; while denizens in the city can still protest and pretty much say what they want about Beijing and the Hong Kong government, they can’t choose their own leaders; the Special Administrative Region (SAR) is “autonomous” and yet that autonomy is being eroded; Hongkongers share the same ethnicity as their mainland counterparts but are far more attuned to “western” democratic values and norms … and the list of contradictions goes on.

Singapore to the Rescue?

To Hongkongers who are sick and tired of their ceaseless political discord, the so-called “Singapore model” seems like the perfect solution to their domestic problems. The CY Leung administration entrapped in governance paralysis and the pro-Beijing, pro-business groups whose money-making ventures are hampered by the policy impasse, lament that their political system is not as “efficient” as our one-party dominant state. Ordinary people, worried that Hong Kong’s political gridlock may stall its progress and turn it into a economic backwater lagging behind other mainland cities and long-time rival Singapore, suddenly find that a “strong” government is not such a bad idea after all.

This sort of increasingly prevalent rhetoric or thinking, however, rests on two myths.

Myth 1: Hong Kong is losing out to Singapore

To a large extent, the impression of Hong Kong falling behind in the economic race has been perpetuated by the SAR government and the Hong Kong media. And I don’t mean just the blatant Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces like Wen Wei Po, Tai Kung Pao etc. Recently, the reputable Mingpao also ran a series of reports on Singapore and Hong Kong that culminated in a forum in which four experts of sorts* praised Singapore to the skies while belittling Hong Kong, so much so that they sounded like they were comparing Singapore to some failed state in Africa (ok I’m exaggerating here but you get my point).

Is Hong Kong really faring so badly? Certainly not, going by my earlier comparison “Hong Kong vs Singapore” and the latest 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index. The Legatum Prosperity Index, which considers not just economic performance but also entrepreneurship, social capital, governance, press freedom, education etc., shows that Hong Kong (18th), Singapore (19th) and also Taiwan (20th) are in a neck-and-neck race. While Singapore may be superior to Hong Kong in certain policy areas, many claims made by the Mingpao series and the forum experts are but half-truths, which I will address in forthcoming posts.

Myth 2: A “strong” and “efficient” government is the answer to Hong Kong’s current predicament

Now what exactly does a “strong” and “efficient” government entail? Ma Ying-jeou’s words on a 2007 visit to Singapore summed it up: “The Singapore Government is very efficient. They can reach consensus easily and there is no squabbling or fighting” (emphasis mine).

What a silly remark coming from a then Presidential candidate. But of course consensus can be reached easily with “no squabbling or fighting” in Singapore. What else do you expect when the Singapore Parliament has always been dominated by a whopping over 90% of ruling party (PAP) members and only a simple majority is required for a bill to gain passage? Although opposition party members won a record 6 seats out of 87 in the watershed 2011 General Election, there is absolutely no way they can obstruct the passage of any bill. And filibustering to thwart a bill in the manner of Hong Kong legislators is unheard of in Singapore. In short, there’s no stopping any bill from being passed in our Parliament, whether Singaporeans like it or not.

And if there are Hongkongers out there who naively believe that all your problems – soaring housing prices, widening rich-poor gap, rising costs and stagnant wages – will dissipate once there is “consensus” in the legislature, think again. In Singapore we are facing similar problems, no thanks to our “strong” and “efficient” government who opened (and is still opening) the floodgates to foreigners entering Singapore. Our population has shot up by more than 700,000 since 2007. So have housing prices, job competition, and costs of living. Ironical, isn’t it?

Transplant our sort of government to Hong Kong and the situation could be a lot worse because only half the Hong Kong legislature is elected and the chief executive is not popularly elected. Once the pro-CCP and pro-business representatives dominate the entire legislature, why should they care about what ordinary Hongkongers want anymore, be it affordable housing, better healthcare, or respect for your rights and freedoms? Come on, just look at how mainland China is governed.

So here’s my word of caution to Hongkongers mulling over a Singapore model: you may well be striking a Faustian bargain if you tradeoff your rights and freedom for short term gains. We Singaporeans know very well that a “strong” and “efficient” government comes at a price, a high one. And once it is in power, you can be sure that it will do everything it can to stay in power. Replacing it will take eons, even if there is universal suffrage.

Oh and by the way, the CCTV is making a ten-part documentary on Singapore (my gosh teeny-weeny Singapore is so flattered!). I’ll leave you to ponder on why the Singapore model is attractive to a long-reigning dictatorship.

* The experts are Justin Chiu Kwok Hung, Executive Director at Cheung Kong Group; Franklin Lam Fan Keung, Executive Council member; Dr YC Chan, City University; George Leung, Advisor, Strategy & Economics, HSBC Asia Pacific.