Simon's Unsubject Podcast
The Question Li Ka-Shing Should Have Asked About Hong Kong's Future

The Question Li Ka-Shing Should Have Asked About Hong Kong's Future

Li Ka-Shing, Lee Kwan-Yew, and ChatGPT

This morning, I came across a news report about Li Ka-Shing.

The Singaporean authority filmed Li Ka-Shing for the centenary commemoration of Lee Kuan Yew's life. Li Ka-shing's participation was a textbook example of public relations, and it made perfect sense for him to honor the Lee family of Singapore. After all, it's reasonable to assume that Li’s values align closely with Lee Kuan Yew's values.

On a related note, I've observed that the Singaporean authority, particularly Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, excels at leveraging the internet and social media for political propaganda. If you browse YouTube, you'll likely encounter videos where Lee Hsien Loong discusses Singapore's governance strategies and achievements.

Let me be clear: I'm not singing praises of Singapore or elevating Lee Kuan Yew. I simply admire their mastery of public relations and strategy. Unlike Hong Kong, which has nothing but empty slogans, Singapore's propaganda is the real work of masters.

To reiterate, I'm not lauding Singapore. When I initially created my YouTube channel, I had a video discussing Singapore that surprisingly attracted many viewers, including Singaporeans. Some comments suggested that comparing Hong Kong to Singapore was unfair—not out of humility, but because they felt Hong Kong couldn't measure up.

One more thing: I generally avoid discussing individuals. I dislike personality-focused debates and don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that "great men" shape history. In reality, circumstances often create heroes. Some people, like Li Ka-shing and Lee Kuan Yew, happened to be in the right place at the right time to seize these opportunities.

So, when Li Ka-shing participates in a video commemorating Lee Kuan Yew's centenary, it carries potent symbolic significance.

If you were to ask Chinese people worldwide who best represents Singapore, most would say Lee Kuan Yew. Conversely, if you asked who epitomizes Hong Kong, the likely answer would be Li Ka-shing.

The collaboration between these iconic figures for the centenary celebration is laden with profound implications.

When Li Ka-Shing posed a question to ChatGPT comparing Singapore and Hong Kong, he received a diplomatically balanced answer, stating that the two cities are both competitors and collaborators.

Li Ka-Shing found this response "interesting," but anyone familiar with Generative AI knows that it is very common for machines to churn out generic, ambivalent responses.

What caught my attention was Li Ka-Shing's subsequent commentary. He reflected on Lee Kuan Yew's early policies in Singapore, which some might consider authoritarian today. He said, "In the context of their era and historical backdrop, there was no room for laxity. The focus was on improving people's livelihoods and building the future. This, in essence, was the most humane approach, and I deeply admire him for that."

In the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew initially aspired to lead his compatriot to govern the “Great Malaya” but he was ultimately compelled to make Singapore stand on its own. Few recognize Singapore's meticulous efforts in racial integration, ever since its founding. It was a response to Malaysia's racial policies that led to their separation.

While many post-colonial societies veered towards nationalism, Singapore built a multi-ethnic society from scratch. This was groundbreaking, especially considering that in the same period, the U.S. was still grappling with civil rights issues.

Singapore's policies, such as its housing policy, are not just about housing but also aim to foster racial integration and social harmony.

Can Hong Kong undergo a similar transformation? To change Hong Kong's system, we must also change its social culture and civil society. Beijing has long considered adopting the "Singapore model" for Hong Kong. However, unlike Singaporean officials who have the autonomy to address issues, can Hong Kong achieve the same level of independence?

Li Ka-shing concluded, "The limitless opportunities Singapore has created from nothing make its people genuinely proud. This is the epitome of great leadership."

Perhaps Li Ka-shing genuinely misses his "friend" Lee Kuan Yew. Unfortunately, in today's Hong Kong, even mentioning a leader who guided a nation to independence is politically incorrect. Li Ka-shing's comments, therefore, are likely to spark various speculations.

Hong Kong government officials are often reluctant to draw comparisons with Singapore. Yet, the growing impatience among Hong Kong's property tycoons suggests a broader societal discontent.

There's also a palpable sense of disappointment with Hong Kong's current state, but some still hold out hope for a better future. I believe Li Ka-Shing is among them; otherwise, why would he inquire about the relationship between Hong Kong and Singapore?

At their core, Hong Kong and Singapore are fundamentally different, yet they face similar macro-environmental challenges. In the past, mainland Chinese who couldn't accomplish certain tasks at home would turn to Hong Kong, for financing, investment, and other financial services. Similarly, Westerners unable to invest in China directly would also come to Hong Kong. This city once seamlessly bridged these two worlds, thanks to its unique position — close to mainland China yet distinct in its administrative, political, and legal systems.

Those days are gone. The world is waking up to the reality that Hong Kong's status as an international financial center isn't Beijing's to bestow—it must be globally recognized. Meanwhile, Singapore is capitalizing on its advantageous position, gradually absorbing roles once filled by Hong Kong.

Some perceive Singapore as pro-China, while others see it as pro-U.S. In my view, Singapore is neither; it simply acts with the sovereignty befitting an independent nation. Since its inception, Singapore has navigated pressures from all sides while maintaining its stance. Hong Kong, too, was once a city that thrived in the narrowest of margins, often described as a "borrowed place on borrowed time." Perhaps it's this existential threat that drives both cities to continually evolve.

From demographics, and natural resources, to geopolitics, Singapore holds significant advantages. With the rise of South and Southeast Asia, coupled with a burgeoning population, Singapore is better positioned to meet the financial needs of these nations.

Let's face it: Singapore has surpassed Hong Kong in many aspects. Although Hong Kong's elites may disdain comparisons with Singapore, there's a growing admiration for the "Singapore model" among both Beijing and Hong Kong's power brokers.

Many believe that the difference between Hong Kong and Singapore lies in the competence of their governing officials. However, I argue that the real distinction is in the societal systems and structures. Hong Kong's administrative apparatus was never designed for high-level intervention in society and markets.

I once visited a community center in Singapore, complete with a library, sports facilities, and a swimming pool. Designed for the average citizen, it was practical yet elegant, all built for around three billion dollars. This infrastructure is part of their social policy, which also includes software like community care groups, with their own financial budget.

In contrast, Hong Kong can spend billions on a pedestrian bridge that no one uses. This stark difference highlights the inefficiency in Hong Kong's public financial management. Bureaucrats here in Hong Kong have long viewed money merely as a tool to solve problems, they seldom go beyond the superficial nor do they address the root issues.

Singapore has consistently outperformed Hong Kong in fiscal governance. During the 1998 Asian financial crisis, I conducted a simple data collection and found that Singapore's government expenditure as a percentage of GDP was similar to Hong Kong's, despite Singapore bearing military costs. This raises questions about where Hong Kong's money is actually going.

Both Hong Kong and Singapore are small, open economies sensitive to economic cycles. When Hong Kong faces economic downturns, so does Singapore. Yet, why does it seem that Hong Kongers harbor more grievances? Hong Kong officials claim to bring "happiness" to its citizens, but who defines this elusive "happiness"?

Singaporeans have a high level of trust in their government; over 40% even say they don't need to criticize it. If Hong Kong's government had such approval ratings, they'd be celebrating.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating for Hong Kong to adopt Singapore's big-government approach. Rather, I've noticed that Hong Kong's progress halted after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the handover of sovereignty. If we want to rejuvenate Hong Kong, how far back should we look? Many would argue that the 1990s should serve as our starting point, prompting us to consider what made Hong Kong successful back then.

What environmental factors can we not replicate? What internal elements enabled us to seize opportunities in that context? I used to believe that Hong Kong's public finance and monetary policies were superior to Singapore's, but now I'm not so sure. Hong Kong is on the brink of a fiscal cliff, and systemic changes are only a matter of time.

Perhaps these questions could be posed to ChatGPT or even Li Ka-Shing: "What has Hong Kong lost from the 1990s to today?"

I believe this question is far more intriguing than simply comparing Hong Kong to Singapore.

Simon's Unsubject Podcast
unsubject covers (1) random topics; (2) the Sinosphere and the world; (3) economics, public policy, and technology.