A tale of two rival cities


SINGAPORE: Look at the list of those appointed to Hong Kong’s new Economic Development Commission (EDC), and Singaporeans might spot a familiar name: George Yeo.

Yes, Singapore’s former foreign minister – who as trade and industry minister had first mooted the idea of casinos in Singapore – will be on the body advising the Hong Kong government on how the city can broaden its economic base and maintain competitiveness.

That was not the only thing “Singaporean” about Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying’s inaugural policy address last Wednesday, when he announced the formation of the EDC.

In the major set piece of his twohour address – a blueprint for his administration’s five-year term, Leung spoke of Hong Kong’s housing crisis, stressing: “I believe that home ownership by the middle class is crucial to social stability.”

Renting has long been accepted as part of the culture, so the emphasis on boosting the home ownership rate, currently at 50%, and its value in promoting stability was striking for its echoes of Singapore, which places a premium on home ownership as a way to increase people’s social and financial stake in the country.

What also stood out in the policy address was a more interventionist approach to the economy in a society more known for its laissez-faire spirit and gung- ho entrepreneurs.

The government, said Leung, must be “appropriately proactive” to tackle market failures.

And so the EDC will be set up to help identify industries for longterm growth. Another body will help develop its financial services, and word is it could evolve to become Hong Kong’s version of Temasek Holdings, to nurture strategic industries.

Even Hong Kong’s film industry – among the most successful in Asia – will get a leg-up. Like in South Korea, Singapore and the mainland, said Leung, more will be done to “promote the development of cultural and creative industries”.

Following in the footsteps of Singapore’s New Talent Feature Grant for budding film-makers announced in May last year, Hong Kong will now have a First Feature Film Initiative fund.

The traditional narrative of Singapore and Hong Kong has been one about rivalry.

Both small, Chinese-majority societies of similar population sizes (5.2 million and 7.7 million respectively) and at similar stages of development, both often make the news for their jostling on various fronts, be it as regional headquarters or as financial or shipping hubs. So some Singaporea ns may query

why Yeo – now as the chairman of Kerry Logistics Network – is putting forth his considerable talents in the aid of Hong Kong.

But this would be missing the wood for the trees: A thriving Hong Kong would be both a healthy spur and lesson for Singapore – and vice versa.

As Yeo himself said in an interview with The Straits Times last year, the rivalry between Singapore and Hong Kong is like that between Oxford and Cambridge: “The similarities are far greater than the differences. The rivalry is exaggerated sometimes for fun.”

Indeed, behind the scenes, ties are quietly and firmly cultivated. Both cities’ top civil servants, or administrative officers, meet annually to exchange ideas, with the last led by Singapore’s head of Civil Service Peter Ong last November.

Just as Hong Kong looks over at what Singapore is doing, there is much that S ingapore is learning from Hong Kong.

The latter’s public transport system – the crown jewel of which is its comprehensive MTR subway system – is one. Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who announced last week that Singapore’s rail network will double by 2030, examined it closely when he visited Hong Kong last September.

Another area instructive for Singapore might be Hong Kong’s minimum wage system, implemented two years ago.

Hong Kong’s conclusion that it had, by and large, helped its poorest workers, with little adverse impact on competitiveness, should be of interest to Singapore.

It was among issues covering labour and urban planning on the agenda when Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin went there on a study trip last May.

Other Hong Kong experiences worth looking at include its successful productivity drive; public engagement efforts with an extremely vocal populace; and its management of a fraught relationship with mainland immigrants.

There are limits, of course. Not all policies are apt for emulation. Some cr itics here have criticised the government for “blindly” following Singapore in slapping stamp duties to cool the property market.

Fierce competition also does undeniably exist, as seen in Hong Kong’s as-yet-unsuccessful attempt to join the China-Asean Free Trade Agreement, a move that will affect Singapore adversely.

But what is undeniable is that the destinies of both cities are entwined. In his memoirs, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, in defending a scheme that allowed Hong Kong entrepreneurs and lawyers to migrate to Singapore ahead of the city’s 1997 handover to China, said: “Their media believed Singapore wanted to cream off its talent but it was in our interests to have Hong Kong succeed after it returned to Chinese sovereignty ... A thriving Hong Kong will be a continuing source of business and benefits.”

Beyond the dollars an d cents is the fact that the two small cities face what Yeo calls “a common globalisation which forces us to confront the same issues worldwide, whether it’s the US elections or changes in the leaders hip in China”.

As he told The Straits Times following the announcement of his appointment: “There’s much that we can learn from each other. We are heavily invested in each other.”

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