A Tale of Two Cities: Singapore vs Hong Kong

HK SG

On Monday afternoon, I asked a young Hong Kong reporter the difference between our two cities, and after thinking for a moment, she said, “In Hong Kong, we have freedom but no independence. In Singapore, you have independence but no freedom.”

This was her first time in Singapore, and she had spent only eight days here. Her conclusion might have a little to do with the fact that she was writing a feature on the arts and Singapore and had interviewed a number of our more liberal artists in the last week. She was also here for the 2015 Spotlight Hong Kong in Singapore festival that ended yesterday. (The image for this post is taken from the website.)

I was interviewing her for the Flourishing Life book, mainly to find out whether she thought that Hong Kong people led flourishing lives. I had also interviewed a bunch of people there last month – academics, a journalist, a lawyer-education campaigner.

Like Singapore, Hong Kong also has a highly-competitive education system and also tops international educational rankings like PISA and TIMMS. The conclusion of the reporter and the others I had interviewed was that Hong Kong people generally don’t lead flourishing lives, although things are slowly changing. But the Occupy Central movement last year (and the other protest rallies such as the one on handover day on July 1 that I attended this year) is one major difference between the seemingly very similar places. And concern about society and participation in politics and social organisations is, for me, part of flourishing in life. So something has happened in Hong Kong which hasn’t here.

The slightly different education system in Hong Kong has only one part to do with the politicization of the populace. In fact, it is possibly not even a big part, according to one Hong Kong academic in the field of education. The main reason is perhaps that the politics and the government of both cities are vastly different. Until some years before the handover in 1997, the British government very successfully curtailed and discouraged civil and political consciousness as that made ruling easier. According to my interviewees, the mistakes made by the post-handover administrations have sparked and developed that consciousness, the ironic result of a good arising from something not so good. The question of the lack of true universal suffrage (there is no freedom to choose the chief executive, but there is freedom to protest: that is the freedom the reporter was talking about) is a big concern among many. It is perhaps second to the problem of sky-high property prices. This has partly explains the general mood of malaise and the turn towards activism in Hong Kong.

It is generally acknowledged that the Hong Kong housing problem looks almost intractable because of political capture of the system by the tycoons and other interests. The reporter told me that most young people, like herself, find the prospect by buying a house after marrying quite daunting because of the very long period, 30 to 40 years, needed to repay the loan. This is true even for those with relatively high salaries. The unreachability of the housing dream has made some young people such as some of her friends give up the rat race altogether to do what they want. They pursue social and political causes such as the environment, start small creative businesses like in handicrafts which give them more satisfaction if less money, or leave.

Up till the late 1990s, Singapore saw Hong Kong as a rival in the region, with the compliment heartily returned. Our media was quite obsessed with who between the two was up, who down. But that is no longer true. We turned our sights on the global cities New York, London, etc. Hong Kong meanwhile seems to be still rather fixated with Singapore. One observer who lives in Hong Kong told me that a few years ago when Singapore overtook Hong Kong in per capita GDP, it sent a shock wave through the SAR — but hardly created a ripple in Singapore. The South China Morning Post, though only read by the elite and hence hardly representative, regularly compares Singapore to Hong Kong, though schizophrenically. The Singapore government is either praised for its forward planning or (less often) slated for its authoritarianism.

I asked the reporter if she would want to emigrate to Singapore. Her surprising answer was no. “Some people in Hong Kong really respect Lee Kuan Yew, and they might want to move here. But most, like me and my friends, would rather have Hong Kong’s freedom.” I guess, most Singaporeans would rather have the other deal. Perhaps that is the real difference between Hong Kong and Singapore.

Image adapted from Spotlight Hong Kong in Singapore

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