chapter  1
13 Pages

Introduction and methodology: containing contention in

ByHong Kong and Singapore

The two city-states have often been considered most similar cases, as is witnessed by an abundance of studies which compare Hong Kong and Singapore (e.g. Geiger and Geiger 1973; Castells, et al. 1990; Chiu, et al. 1995; Wong 2002; Sing 2004a; Cheung 2008). This is not surprising, considering the many similarities between the two small city-states (Table 1.1). While Hong Kong is not an independent state, it has enjoyed great autonomy

since World War II which can be described as “de facto independence” (Harris 1982). This has meant that the influence of the British administration has remained virtually nonexistent during this time. Both cities have been strongly influenced by British administrative practices, due to their colonial history. Even though Singapore gained autonomy from Britain in 1959, and independence in 1965 after it split from Malaysia, it is remarkable how much of the British administrative apparatus has survived the transition. At least on

the surface, Singapore has preserved a great deal of the institutions from the British colonial era. There are, for example, the parliament, the judiciary, the school system, the English language, and also some of the more infamous aspects such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial. Hong Kong, on the other hand, never became independent and remained a part of the British empire until it was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997. Formal democracy, as in Singapore, did not become a political feature of colonialism in Hong Kong until the late 1980s, but liberal attitudes toward free speech and freedom of assembly were largely respected in colonial Hong Kong, while control of the media and severe restrictions on political expression were and still are unabashedly justified by Singapore’s leadership. While today Singapore is considered noncompetitive and Hong Kong semi-competitive (Sing 2004b), in the 1970s Hong Kong was equally noncompetitive. Due to the fact that the majority of the population in both city-states originates

from the Chinese empire, there is also a strong similarity in cultural practices. Singapore’s government regards so-called “Asian values,” which contain many Confucian virtues, as its basic cultural foundation. A study has found that while 65 percent of the Hong Kong elite believe in the existence of “Asian values,” 93 percent think it would not be good to emulate Singapore’s political system (Beatty 2003: 47, 64). While in the 1970s, Chinese culture was sometimes used as an argument to explain the politically apathetic population (Lau 1982), the decades after 1980 proved that this was not the case. Nevertheless, this has led some to conclude that Singapore’s cultural heritage is one reason for the population’s lack of interest in political affairs. This becomes even more complicated by the fact that Singapore’s population, with about 76 percent ethnic Chinese, is much less homogeneous than Hong Kong’s, with 95 percent considered Chinese, which suggests that Singapore could be more rather than less prone to social conflict. In both city-states, entrepôt trade and international corporations play an

important role, and both have experienced rapid economic growth, due to export-oriented industrialization. Their developmental experiences gained these two city-states the designation as tiger states, or dragon states, and they have often been seen as direct competitors. Furthermore, since the 1970s both states have been regarded as relatively free of corruption. While both proclaimed economic freedom as essential, the British colonial regime in Hong Kong felt the need to maintain an economic system that was based mostly on laissez-faire, with little government intrusion. Singaporean leaders, obviously influenced by their initial collaboration with the Communists (Bloodworth 1986), decided to control the local economy, which was accomplished to a large part through an emphasis on government-linked corporations. Furthermore, the Singapore government developed economic plans that included targeted subsidies for multi-national corporations (MNCs), which were carefully selected according to certain criteria. This also sets it apart from Hong Kong, where the government supported MNCs only insofar as it maintained extremely low taxes and provided the infrastructure for businesses.