In 1984,Singaporean journalist Chen Jiachang penned a series of articles titled ‘ Hong Kong at the end of the century and Singapore’s future interest’ and arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. The transition in sovereignty in 1997 would spell the end of Hong Kong as it would lead to the mass exodus of Hong Kongers with anti-communist sentiments or mistrust against Beijing.
  2. Post-transition Hong Kong would struggle to be comparable to the wilted Shanghai, let alone regaining its former glory. After the retreat of British administration, Hong Kong would no longer face nor embrace the global stage.
  3. Singapore should exploit Hong Kong’s relative decline and prepare to replace it as the pearl of the orient, as Singapore’s existing relationship with the west would be one of its edge over Hong Kong.

Two decades into the transition into China, these remarks were felt by some with growing pain: Wile Singapore crowned itself at the brain of ASEAN, Hong Kong seemingly relegated itself as an appendix to China. As the two financial centers of Asia, they played important roles in Belt and Road initiative (OBOR) as honest brokers and as financiers. To understand their roles in OBOR, we must first understand their respective features and differences. Let us return to Chen’s conclusion, which ultimately centers upon only one thing: Singapore’s edge over Hong Kong after 1997 is its regional influence.

In Singapore, decolonization does not mean expunging its colonial past but making the most out of it. English was uplifted as a national language and the British code of law remained largely unchanged. Immigration, particularly educated specialists, is encouraged through welfare and accommodation. The flowers of their youth to study in the best academies overseas and entrusted with official status upon graduation. Although the majority of the population were ethnic Chinese, the city-state does not lean towards favoritism and instead embraced meritocracy and pan-Asian values.

Naturally, the Singaporean model comes with its own limitations and dilemmas. The eager introduction of foreign talents clashed against a growing sense of nationality. While the government pushed for Lee Kwan Yu’s ‘nation-building’ and placed high regards to the ‘singaporean core’, it also planned for unrestricted immigration from China in its 2013 population white paper. Protests broke out with slogans such as ‘Singapore for Singaporean’ and this rare display of dissent revealed the increasingly volatile conflict between its global connection and its local identity. As it happens, are against Chinese immigrants is something shared by Hong Kong, yet while the Singaporean government relented and tightened its control on unskilled immigrants, the leaders of Hong Kong swept immigration from China under the rug of ‘one country two systems’. Their polar reactions against the same problem reveal a crucial difference between Hong Kong and Singapore that was often overlooked:

While Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, Singapore is a sovereign state by itself.

Singapore’s sovereignty entails formal autonomy in local governance and regional diplomacy. As a sovereign state, it can directly engage with other countries as equals via formal channels. Its attraction to regional elites has transformed Singapore into the hub of human capital in Southeast Asia (SEA). In the context of OBOR, Singapore’s diplomatic channels with other SEA nations and prominence within ASEAN allow it to play the role of facilitator and man-on-ground between Beijing and asian neighbours. “You should not be mistaken that if a railway is built in Indonesia, Singapore has no role to play“, the former government chief economist Tan Kong Yam said to 50 academics in Beijing Foreign Studies University, “Singapore may not be building the railway, but the master planning, the financing, everything is done in Singapore”.

On the other hand, Hong Kong’s political status was sometimes misinterpreted as a weakness, with the prime example of the Philippine president refuse to take a phone call from Hong Kong’s executive Chief during the Manila hostage crisis. However, ambiguity is often an advantage in politics. In April, Li Ka Shing’s bid to take over Australian energy giant the Duvet Group was approved while the offer from China owned State Grid was rejected for fear of foreign infiltration. The approval of Li’s offer spells a clear message from Australia, Bloomberg noted, ‘in spite of the pending 2047 expiry of its separate administrative status, Hong Kong isn’t China, and its businesses aren’t Chinese either.’ When Beijing’s influence was eyed with suspicion in south east asia, Hong Kong’s distinctiveness makes it a logical choice of frontman representing China’s interest.

In the context of OBOR, while Singapore’s connectivity with the region dons it the role of a broker and facilitator between Beijing and the region, Hong Kong’s proximity to and distinction from China makes it an ideal frontman to represent Beijing’s interest. Comparative analysis between Hong Kong and Singapore should go further than ‘Why Hong Kong wanes and Singapore waxes?’ or ‘Hong Kong is suffering as a Chinese city’, and develop a holistic understanding and recognize distinctions between the social, economical, political and historical elements inherent to the duo.

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