Instead I thought I would share with you some observations on a phenomenon in both our cities and reflect on why this phenomenon takes place. There are many things that we can say about Hong Kong and Singapore but the one thing you cannot accuse us of is our lack of ambition. And if you would forgive me for being immodest for both of us, we do not only have ambitious ideas, but Hong Kong and Singapore have a way of making these ideas become reality.
This thought came to me when I watched the launch of the new dragon logo of Hong Kong. As an aside, I know the SAR government took a lot of stick for the logo in the media, but I thought it was a good logo. You may not want to call yourself the Dragon City as we call Singapore the Lion City (which is what the Sanskrit words Singa Pura means), but the dragon expresses your Chinese spirit and isn't Kowloon the nine dragons anyway?
The accompanying slogan to the dragon logo is "Hong Kong – Asia's World City". It struck me that since my arrival in Hong Kong more than four years ago, I have seen quite a number of slogans that Hong Kong has given to itself to project Hong Kong as an international commercial city. New York as a paradigm has often been used. Since 1998, the Chief Executive has made public statements comparing Hong Kong to New York while Financial Secretary Antony Leung has recently used the term "Manhattan Plus". I have always been struck by how much Hong Kong felt like Manhattan, its bustle, its crowded streets and its tall buildings. But I believe that the leaders of the SAR use the Manhattan or New York paradigm not just to point to the similarities but to express Hong Kong's ambition to be a world city. Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa said at the TDC dinner in London in October last year, "Hong Kong already possesses many of the key features common to London and New York." For example, he said, "We are already an international centre of finance and a popular tourist destination, and hold leading positions in trade and transportation, home to a host of multinational companies that provide services to the entire region. These are all pillars of our economy. If we can consolidate our existing economic pillars and continue to build on our strengths, we should be able to become a world city".
To my mind, all great cities have a roar, a throb or a sensation of life that lifts the heart and stirs the blood when we walk on their streets. But to be a world city is to be more than that. And very few cities, even great cities, reach the pinnacle of being a world city. Hong Kong's ambition is admirable and if Hong Kong sets its mind to achieve this ambition, it will have a better chance at achieving this than most other cities.
Interestingly, Singapore was once compared to New York. The comparison was made not by a Singaporean but by Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, around 1963. The Tengku, as he was called, made the point that Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, was the Washington of the Federation and that Singapore should be the New York. The Tengku was a very subtle man and the message was not that Singapore was going to be a world city. According to the late Professor Michael Leifer from the London School of Economics, the message was that political power in Malaysia rested in Kuala Lumpur even if Singapore became the commercial hub. Professor Leifer said in an interview with the BBC in 1998, "In other words, Singapore should know its place".
It is instructive to see how a paradigm has different meanings in different historical and geographical contexts. In a similar vein to Hong Kong’s aspiration to be a world city, Singapore's first Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam talked about Singapore being a Global City in 1972. Twenty-nine years ago, this was not the notion of globalisation as we know it today. Mr Rajaratnam's intentions were quite different from Hong Kong's, as his focus was strategic and not economic. Picture, if you will, the regional locale of Singapore in 1972. The policy of Confrontation against Malaysia by Indonesia started by President Soekarno had just ended. The sense of vulnerability of a new small nation made Singapore reach out beyond its regional locale to attract multinational enterprises in an industrial venture to provide the economic foundations to be a global city. Mr Rajaratnam said in 1972, "we draw sustenance not only from the region but also the international economic system to which we as a Global City belong and which will be the final arbiter of whether we prosper or decline".
For Singapore, being a Global City in 1972 was a survival strategy. This could perhaps be contrasted to Hong Kong's desire to be a world city, which I would see as a positioning exercise.
Over our 42 years of history after the colonial period, we had our fair share of titles and slogans that we gave ourselves. Many were terms used for domestic purposes to inspire and drive common aspirations. The earliest of these titles and slogans related to multi-racial and multi-religious themes emphasising the centrality of racial harmony as the foundation tenets of the Republic of Singapore. Other early themes were intended to encourage Singaporeans to strive for goals together. An early example was the notion of Singapore as a Rugged Society. Intertwined with the drive to promote compulsory military service for all male Singaporeans above the age of 18 years, the Rugged Society idea was part of a national defence concept for Singaporeans to be tough physically. These slogans continue till today though the direction has changed. This is a reflection of the changes in our life and times in Singapore. For example, the June 1997 theme of "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation" was to describe a new direction in education policy. Themes like "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation" are expressed not so much as aspirations for Singaporeans but encapsulations of larger policy ideas to act as shorthand approaches for public communications.
There have been other epithets to capture the essence of Singapore's economic aspirations. The most common one used in the 1990s was the notion of Singapore as a hub city for business, for IT and for biotechnology. The notion of hub-city signifies a role in a region but not an exclusive status. For example, in the United States, many domestic airlines use particular cities as hubs and there are many hubs in the US. In earlier references, Singapore leaders have also expressed the aspiration for Singapore to be the Switzerland of Asia when we wanted the international financial community to see Singapore as a financial centre. This was in the mid-70s. More recently, Singapore's Prime Minister talked about Singapore's desire to be the Boston of the East to illustrate the aspirations of Singapore to be an education hub.
From these few examples, you can see that the pursuit of slogans to describe our cities or benchmarking ourselves with some developed country or city is common to both Hong Kong and Singapore. The fact that Singapore used these slogans earlier is certainly not because we were more original or cleverer at being faster off the mark. It is simply a matter of history that we had to start off on our own earlier in 1959 as a self governing former colony and then becoming a Republic in 1965 after a brief period as a state in Malaysia. By contrast, Hong Kong's identity as an autonomous SAR started only 4 years and 12 days ago. Going it alone forces one to re-examine oneself in order to chart the way ahead and these themes and slogans help to articulate for the community shared visions.
Hong Kong and Singapore appear to be a unique pair in frequently benchmarking our cities to the achievements and status of the developed countries and cities of the West. I do not get the impression that other cities around the world make this comparison as frequently as we do. Could it be that we are the two modern day cities that bear the closest resemblance to the city-states of history in this modern era of nation states? There are many great cities around the world, which appear far less self-conscious of their own status and do not need to assert their position in the world. Is this because they exist within a larger nation state and in today's world, recognition tends to be of nation states rather than city-states?
The question I would raise is why do Singapore and Hong Kong feel the need for comparisons to be made and for positioning exercises to be done? I have not been here long enough but I would venture to guess that in all the years up to 1997, Hong Kong never did or perhaps never needed a positioning exercise. Is the positioning exercise a way to differentiate Hong Kong from other cities of China? In Singapore's case, it was certainly a deliberate strategy. In the second volume Mr Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs, the Senior Minister described his two strategies for overcoming Singapore's natural disadvantages in the 1960s: first by going beyond our own region and second, "to create a First World oasis in a Third World region".
When Premier Zhu Rongji visited the United States last year, he made the remark that Shanghai is China's New York. When pursued on this point, he said in Canada that Shanghai is China's New York and Hong Kong is China's Toronto. You may recall that there was much hand wringing at that time and great angst about what the Premier meant. This was obviously a sensitive point because the perception must have been that in the eyes of the Premier, Hong Kong ranked lower than Shanghai. More recently, various universities and think tanks in Hong Kong have produced reports on Hong Kong's competition with Shanghai and now the focus of competition has shifted from Singapore to Shanghai. Many senior officials in the SAR argue that Shanghai still has a way to go because of HK's advantage with its rule of law, open economy, level playing field and so on. This line of argument is predictable. What was not predictable was Mayor Xu Kuangdi easily conceding that Shanghai is positioned as China's financial centre while Hong Kong is Asia's financial centre. Private conversations with senior Chinese businessmen and officials also echo the reassurance that Shanghai is no challenge to Hong Kong. The theme of their responses sounded very alike, as if sticking to an official line. Why do Chinese officials play down the rise of Shanghai?
In Singapore's case, we have seen other cities in our region wanting to be the air, sea and financial hubs for South East Asia. This is a challenge to us but the desire is a totally legitimate aspiration of any country or city wanting to perform that role. Our only solution is to try and do the same job better by providing the best price for a service to be done faster and with greater efficiency. If we still can't make it, then we will just have to find another niche to make our living. But we cannot begrudge other places having the same ambitions as us. As a small red dot on the map as one Indonesian President dismissed us, we had long realised that we had to be relevant to other people and to add value to their products. If we couldn't do that, we don't eat. The political leadership in Singapore constantly reminds its citizens that "No one owes us a living".
Singapore is possibly the only nation where the leaders discuss publicly with Singaporeans how long Singapore as a nation state can survive. Obviously the island will always be there but will the political entity called the Republic of Singapore last forever? The longest surviving city-state in the world was Venice and it lasted 1000 years from 700 A.D. to the 1700s when Napoleon finally brought the Most Serene Republic to an end and Venice then became part of a united Italy created by Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. How did this city survive a thousand years in the complex politics of Europe? Therefore, when we ask ourselves the question of our survival in Singapore, there is good cause because history has not been kind to small entities like city-states. The sense of vulnerability is high and it creates a national psyche.
Hong Kong does not have to face this question. What Palmerston called "a barren island", that will always be here. But as a political entity, it has changed from British colony to a SAR of China. Both sovereigns, the UK before 1997 and China after 1997, have vested interests to make this city survive and prosper. If we judge by comments of various Legco members and even members of the SAR Government, one of the fundamental tasks for Hong Kong is to preserve its unique position and not to be another city of China. I believe it would be fair to say that at least in the last 17 years since 1984, Hong Kong has been most pre-occupied with the worry whether Hong Kong's unique identity might be overrun by the enormity of China and whether the good practices that have made business prosper in this city may become subverted by practices in China not perceived by the business community to be better than Hong Kong's. In many ways, Hong Kong's best dreams and its greatest nightmares relate to its unique geographical, economic, social and political position vis a vis China. This also creates a sense of vulnerability and it has created a Hong Kong psyche. The vulnerability and the psyche may be different substantively from Singapore's sense of vulnerability and national psyche but the common denominator is the vulnerability of small entities.
Could it be that both Hong Kong and Singapore constantly strive to be great cities in order to proclaim our uniqueness? Does the current use of the New York paradigm in Hong Kong or the Switzerland paradigm in Singapore in the 1970s inadvertently reveal our need to tell our own people and tell the world of our aspirations and to differentiate ourselves from the immediate region we live in?
I often get the sense that Singaporeans and Hong Kongers spend a lot of time comparing their cities with other cities and even with each other. I believe that it is healthy for us to pay attention to the developments of cities and surrounding regions in East Asia. Benchmarks of developments are always useful not only for governments but for the business sector as well. Studying how we all tackle the problems we face is instructive. It can confirm that what we have been doing has been right all along or that we may do better by adopting some of the practices that other cities are using. But I would be against developing an over-emphasis on other cities catching up with us. If we don't get our own act together, we cannot expect to retain our market position or our market share. And even if we can get our act together, there is no guarantee that the bigger political, technological, economic and social forces in the world will not render us irrelevant to the world economy and leave us on the wayside.
Just as the Venetians who never took their success for granted, never felt invulnerable, survived 1000 years of tumultuous European history as a city, we may want to take a lesson from this. As we strive to be great cities, being vulnerable is not a negative asset. It keeps us on our toes and makes us more ready to face the many inevitable crises that will buffet us. I hope that it would not only be Hong Kong and Singapore that can become great cities in East Asia. I hope there will be a string of great cities stretching from Japan, the Korean peninsula, through China and South East Asia to Australia and New Zealand. Because if such a string of great cities exist in this East Asian region all linked together in a prosperous exchange of trade and a flourishing exchange of intellectual ideas, this signifies that the region is stable and booming. So Hong Kong and Singapore let us strive to be great cities even as we cheer the rise of other great cities in our region. We should be seriously worried if only one of us or only the two of us are the only great cities because this is a sure sign that our region is suffering a decline.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation
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