Monday, December 21, 2009

Hong Kong : A cautionary tale....

I've not blogged much because I was sent overseas for a 'last minute' assignment. After I came back from Europe, I was able to squeeze a short vacation to Hong Kong into my schedule. It has been more than a decade since I last visited Hong Kong. Many years ago, I shared a room in one of the NUS halls with a student from Hong Kong for a year during my undergrad days. He was a friendly sociable feller but had a strange habit. Every night before he went to bed, he would write down in his diary what he spent his money on for that day - it was down to the last cent. I remember one night he couldn't sleep because there was a 50cent shortfall in his wallet. He later recalled that he bought a drink during the day. While most Hong Kongers are not as extreme as my roommate, they have created a society dominated by the pursuit of money - unfettered capitalism that lasted for decades. There is no make believe "equality" in Hong Kong - their school children don't recite a pledge about building a society based on equality and they don't serve NS to defend whole bunch of ideals. Its is probably understood that it is every man for himself, grab as much money as you can because whoever has the most in the end wins the game. The end result is startling and highly visible inequality possible only because they don't conduct democratic elections. My ex-roommate in NUS couldn't stand the thought of returning to Hong Kong. After he got a job in Singapore, he brought his whole family (father, mother and sister) over.

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak looks like a great economic success.
Yes, you see skyscrapers, luxury condominiums and all the superficial exterior signs of wealth. However, you have to examine the Hong Kong society more closely to see the stratifications - the high concentration of opportunities and wealth in a handful of people. The rich live in hilltop villas and poor families who live on boats because cannot apartments. If you're really poor, you end up in a cage[Link].


Buildings the height of Duxton are commonplace in Hong Kong. It is not a good sign that HDB built the Pinnacle@Duxton because it means our housing prices have gone up enough to overcome the high cost of constructing such residential 'skyscrapers'. Real estate price escalation benefits those with the most assets far more than the average families who have only one property and cannot monetise it. Escalating real estate prices in Hong Kong created a handful billionaire property developers and hundreds of thousands of families that cannot afford a decent home - worsening the inequality. This is where we will end up if we leave housing to the free market as the population density rises - you end up creating more poverty than you do wealth.

After the handover to China, the Hong Kong people became aware of the importance of democracy and rights. In 2003 when the Chinese govt tried to implement anti-sedition laws similar to those in Singapore, close to half a million people took to the streets[Link]. When the govt tried to impose GST, they again took to the streets to prevent it[Link] - their biggest worry is that such regressive taxation will further burden the poor and worsen the income gap. Upholding democracy in a territory controlled by China is risky because there is no telling what the Chinese govt will do and when they will start acting against who stand up for freedom and justice. However, individuals like Jimmy Lai[Link] and Martin Lee are willing to risk everything including their lives[Link] to bring change to Hong Kong.

"I think Hong Kong's freedoms are under threat all the time,"

-Margaret Ng, a pro-democracy legislator

They know if they do not guard their freedom and rights fiercely, the pro-Beijing govt will just slip in legislation that will take them away. Constant vigilance is necessary because government control of the media is growing through patronage, financing and the rewarding of pro-Beijing behaviour. When Jimmy Lai's paper became critical of Beijing, companies quickly withdraw their advertisements[Link] out of fear of offending China. The Hong Kong people will have direct elections in 2017[Link] if Beijing sticks to its promise. The reason they don't want it held sooner is the pro-Beijing lawmakers will lose badly given the widespread dissatisfaction with the govt.

One thing I didn't see in Hong Kong was aged cleaners like those we have in Singapore. I found most of these old folks reading newspapers in tim sum restaurants or at McDonalds. They probably receive enough to live on under a comprehensive social safety net put in place by the govt.

The Hong Kong story provides a lesson for all of us. Today a large segment of the population(18%) lives in poverty[Link]. It is no coincidence that greatest income gap in the developed world appears in Hong Kong - the only place in the developed world where there are no direct elections[Link]. The 2nd highest income gap in the developed world is found in a country where the rights of people to protest and speak in public is limited and the media is controlled by the govt. A combination of unbridled capitalism and lack of democracy resulted an unequal society in which there is widespread discontent.

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

So it seems in HK protests can help in some ways. But cannot help worsening inequality.

In Singapore, no protests (except at designated areas) allowed and also worsening inequality.

So here there is still room for it to worsen to reach HK level. But still no room for protest.

Uniquely Singapore and will continue to be so.

Chen said...

I have no respect for those so called democracy fighters in Hong Kong.

For a hundred years under British rule they have no guts to fight for democracy so why are they doing it now?

It is just a slogan they can use to gain popular support and get into power, nothing more.

Anonymous said...

Gini coefficient:

Hongkong: 53.3 (2007)
Singapore: 48.1 (2008)
China: 47 (2007)
India: 36.8(2004)

LuckySingaporean said...

anon 11:21,

When Gini=50 is crossed, there is this hapless feeling across the general population that they have little chance to make it.

Anonymous said...

Hong Kong has a lot more social safety nets and its govt collects a lot less tax, (unlike singapore with a lot of indirect tax in the form of erp, ns, gst, petrol tax etc, etc, etc)

Towkay said...

High Gini coefficient is good. It is a sign that meritocracy is working. The Singapore government should aim for a pass grade (above 50) instead of 48.

I wonder why the cage dwellers are so selfish, if they can't afford an apartment in Hong Kong, then they should move to lower cost places like Shenzhen instead of occupying precious space. I am confident that the PAP government won't allow such mistakes to happen in Singapore. Health Minister has already suggested twice that Singaporeans retire in nursing homes in Batam and JB. HDB is also doing its part by forcing poor people to live at Jurong and Woodlands, near to JB so that eventually they can move to JB.

Central places like Toa Payoh should be reserved for useful Foreign Talent especially those from Sentosa IR. Happy to see that HDB is renting out Toa Payoh flats cheaply to foreigners, they definitely deserve preferential treatment given their contributions. We must help them by letting them go to their workplace more conveniently.

I will continue voting for PAP as they have proven they are not afraid to make tough choices to preserve our meritocratic system.

For a better future said...

Dun blame the system if you cant make it in life. blame yourself.

A good solution for these eyesores such as poor people is to round them up and incinerate them on an island. It will be called the Social development act.

ANd i will start with you Luckytan, a seditious bastard.

Anonymous said...

Capitalisim is not meritocratic. Really... Look, I think Harry Potter makes more than our PM. So, he has more merit?... =)

Maybe we have not been paying our PM enough. Since he is more talented than the Hollywood stars he should be paid at least twice what the highest paid star earns. =)

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly, the Hong Kong social safety net was put in-place by its former British colonial masters. Singapore had similar structures too -- remember free/low-cost hospitalization, pension scheme, etc? We have let PAP tear down all that was good left behind by the British and retain the bad stuff (e.g. ISA).

It is our parents' responsibility (those aged 50-100) for allowing PAP to dominant politically. If we don't vote differently, it will be our responsibility too.

Anonymous said...

//
Dun blame the system if you cant make it in life. blame yourself.
//

LuckyBama is a millionaire!

//
A good solution for these eyesores such as poor people is to round them up and incinerate them on an island. It will be called the Social development act.
//

LuckyBama (at least his idol) is in favor of cap-n-trade!

And poor people can be harvested for their organs. Like what the Israeli do to Arabs! For profit!!!

You are a disgrace to Ministars Khaw and Mah!!!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

"Capitalisim is not meritocratic. Really... Look, I think Harry Potter makes more than our PM. So, he has more merit?... =)"

I am beginning to think that capitalism and meritocracy is a toxic combination.

At least in aristocracy there is an nagging suspicion that one's wealth could be primarily due to the luck of birth and the efforts of others.

In our version of meritocracy, rich parents still pass on their money and social influence to their kids, but now they can set their own rules about what is considered "merit" and claim moral justification for their wealth and power.

In one masterstroke the unequal starting point is rendered irrelevant. The elite are not only rich and powerful, they also FULLY DESERVE all of it and in fact they ought to have more.

It's NOT about a person who is lucky enough to be born into a family who can afford to send him to a prestigious overseas university at a time when most of our Ah Kongs were working as labourers and shop assistants.

It's about VISIONARY LEADERSHIP.

Anonymous said...

//
Buildings the height of Duxton are commonplace in Hong Kong. It is not a good sign that HDB built the Pinnacle@Duxton because it means our housing prices have gone up enough to overcome the high cost of constructing such residential 'skyscrapers'.
//

Mr LuckyBama

I believe u are aware that turning back (from the 6.5M target) will be exceeding painful.

U were not on the streets protesting were u?

Two wrongs do not make a right.

We need more Duxtons or else your young readers will never get their homes. In fact we have too few Duxtons.

No joke!!!

//
A combination of unbridled capitalism and lack of democracy resulted an unequal society in which there is widespread discontent.
//

Most of us cant vote COS IT IS A WALKOVER!!!

Liberals are NATO.
This is why fundies are on the rise.

They put their neck/money on the line.

Featherless Chicken

Anonymous said...

your fellow roommate habit is not strange at all. many ppl who keeps a tight leash on their spending do this too, e.g. rockefeller,jim rogers etc.

actually it is a good habit to adopt to keep you away from money trouble.

Towkay said...

I don't think it is a good solution to round up poor people (i prefer the term people without merit) and incinerate them on an island.

Think of the costs involved! First, it will give us a bad reputation and scare away tourists. Tourist dollars is very important! Second, an island is better utilized as resort homes for the rich. Third, don't think the people will go to their deaths without a fight, so we have to hire more guards which add more costs.

Current idea is still best lah, confine them to a useless area (industrial jurong, woodlands) or JB. Delay medical care to them, they will die naturally within a few years.

Anonymous said...

To Towkay, it's people like you that the government has to build fancy skyscrapers like Pinnacles at Duxton for you. And if you didn't manage to get one, you will be the ones complaining that you are too "high class" to stay in Jurong or Woodlands - these places are for poor people that you so obviously despise and look down upon.

I'm afraid we need more subsidised skyscrapers like Pinnacles @ Duxton and WOHA designed subsidised HDBs at Dawson. Our youngsters won't settle for anything less because they're too high class to stay in the suburbs like Jurong. So, the government is actually fulfilling the wish of the youngsters today by building the Rolls-Royce HDBs in the city.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Towkay, a few suggestions : )

*Current idea is still best lah, confine them to a useless area (aka waste land like the one near punggol, industrial land still useful...u towkay..should know that many FT lived and worked in industrial areas), (industrial jurong, woodlands) or JB. Delay (deny) medical care to them, they will die naturally within a few years...then incinerate them, so that no need space..no..how abt rear some animals to feed on them because incinerating also costs $$$...wait a minute..need to do cost benefit analysis first..u agree? towkay ; P

Towkay said...

Just a rant...not easy to be Towkay these days. Have to wait until election is over before I can increase my import of foreign workers.

But look on the bright side, after PAP get their mandate, I will go full steam ahead! Earn money like siao ah!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Ha ha... If Lucky can also be called LuckyBama, then Towkay can also be called TowkayColbert ;)

Anonymous said...

your room mate bought a drink for HK$0.50? That must be a long time ago.

In HK, if you are poor but willing to work, you can take some wares, dish up something and paddle it on the streets. Your chances of getting caught is there, but not as high as S'pore. Here, you don't even dare to think about it! Just suffer in silence

Anonymous said...

I have some HK friends. I got to know them while working in China. They are all younger than me because they do not have to serve NS. At that time, the economy was very bad and fresh graduates from HK had to find work in nearby Guangdong or Shenzhen. When I had conversations with them; they acknowledged that HK is expensive and their priorities were quite like Singaporeans. However one point that struck me was that given a choice, they would much rather work in HK. In a recent survery by MSM, many young Singaporeans stated they would have no qualms about leaving Singapore to work elsewhere. I did ask them if there was an opportunity to work like in the US or Europe, would they take up the offer? Their answers were hesitant and readily available. However in Singapore, I think most of us would probably take up that chance.

Point is that though HK is quite like Singapore, their young people still have more of a sense of belonging to HK as compared to Singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

When people feel they have choices, they feel that they have more control of their lives. If they feel they have more control of their lives, they will feel they have a stake in it. When they feel they have a stake in it, they will have a sense of belonging. Finally, when they have a sense of belonging, they will be more happy since life is more purposeful as you have the power to influence and impact on others around you especially on the ones that you love.

Anonymous said...

I just bought a cheap flat and fully paied too.

Now I just have to tread the STRAIGHT AND NARROW PATH to avoid any pitfalls.

I SHUN any forms of REAL gambling, save TOTO which I fork out $2.00 per week. I just hope I am HEALTHY when I grow old and not DEMENTIAED.

SO I guess I am those last of the MOHICCANS. THOSE after me will have HELL OF TOUGH LIFE IN SINGAPORE

Anonymous said...

I am like your HK roommate. Since the day i left school and started working I keep track of my expenses in an excel sheet and i track it daily.

I think it is good habit. Because it is like a little cashflow chart and you get a clear picture of your financial position; whether you are spending wisely and whether you are saving enough.

Anonymous said...

"Dun blame the system if you cant make it in life. blame yourself.

A good solution for these eyesores such as poor people is to round them up and incinerate them on an island. It will be called the Social development act."

a better solution would be to incarcerate all the poor people so they don't add to the poor gene pool

with only pedigree left among us, we can truly be the best in batam, batok and barbados

Anonymous said...

"incarcerate" cost too much $$$!
"incinerate" wastes the carbon credits that an be traded!

harvesting is still the best!
U jokers cant compare to the living buddha health mini-star!

//
I keep track of my expenses in an excel sheet and i track it daily.
//

Seriously. waste of time and pointless.
Time is money!!!
Spend the time looking for investment opportunities.
No joke!!!

Life is short.
Learn from Lucky.
The difference between value and price.
If you really want to save money, pay yourself 1st.

TheRunningDog said...

wealth is THE religion here. they are saying,it is good to be rich. better still to be rich and humble(don't be flashy and cause envy among the havenots ). but best are the rich who use their wealth to lift the poor out of poverty( new definition of sainthood).

we don't have cage people and neither will you find vagrants and beggars sporadically scattered all over the city.

yes, they have more democracy but has that culled the widening divide between the rich and poor?

hk has a combination of unbridled capitalism AND *democracy* which resulted in an unequal society in which there is widespread discontent.

our "lack of democracy" resulted in an unequal society in which there is widespread *containment*.

will we one day be like hk?

only when we have UNBRIDLED democracy!!

wat? said...

you must also realise that alot of HK's pro-democracy fighters...they NEVER championed for democracy under the british. they were highly paid "civil servants"

now they feel that they are losing money and power, the hang by the thread of "pro-democracy"

do not be fooled.

Anonymous said...

The elderly folks in HK are entitled to collect from their govt a small monthly stipend called 'fruit allowance' when they reach a certain age.

No need to beg from any govt agency or CDC. No need to argue whether they expect their fruits to be taken at the hawker centre, foodcourt or restaurant.

Anonymous said...

"For a hundred years under British rule they have no guts to fight for democracy so why are they doing it now?"

I once heard a funny story from a chinese business man relating a conversation that he had with a ang-mo friend.

The ang-mo told him that he would not be too concerned dealing with chinese partners in a business as they (the partners) would play out one another.

On the other hand, he would be very concerned if he was dealing with only one person as that one person would tend to be very skrewd and focused.

I took it with a pinch of salt but then the history has so far shown that a certain race is better in screwing their own kind more than those from the outside.

Do you need to fight for something which is already there.

"It is just a slogan they can use to gain popular support and get into power, nothing more."

At least, it is through democracy not those unwanted undemocratic rules just shoved onto you.

Anonymous said...

It's not easy or fair to make a comparison between Singapore and Hong Kong, especially on the basis of a short visit.

As a Singaporean living in HKG, the freedom from being lectured and reminded how well off we are in Singapore is refreshing.

It's also interesting to see how many Singaporeans who have commented on this post by DOASM, including the blogger, believe Singapore is superior to Hong Kong.

Each place has its own merits and demerits. Don't judge a book by its cover!

Anonymous said...

at least our poor don't have to live in cages.

soojenn said...

"While most Hong Kongers are not as extreme as my roommate,..."

Most Hong Kongers are not really as extreme as the roomate you seem fortunate to have met. I have not met one you have just described in over the decade that I have been in HK.

"they have created a society dominated by the pursuit of money - unfettered capitalism that lasted for decades."

-the society is lassire faire one, with no or little control/interference (unfettered as you put it) by the government in most of the business, unlike in Singapore, where the government have their fingers in anything you can think of, and deprive the citizens of such opportunities, even the simplest of the business, like funeral parlors?
- if you are hard working in HK, there a many opportunities. There is such a dearth of similar opportunities back in Singapore.

"There is no make believe "equality" in Hong Kong - their school children don't recite a pledge about building a society based on equality and they don't serve NS to defend whole bunch of ideals."

HK is not a country but is part of China. Before 1997, they were governed by the British, and the people therefore has probably no sense of it being a country and adapt to the environment as such. Singapore recite the pledge - so what? is Singapore really building a society based on equality? Looks like even the old man says the pledge, mind you, is only an aspiration, not for real? Also, apparently some people are more equal than others.

" Its is probably understood that it is every man for himself, grab as much money as you can because whoever has the most in the end wins the game."

I think this is probably a gross exaggeration on your part. It will be interesting to understand how you arrive at this perception and on what these were based on?

"The end result is startling and highly visible inequality possible only because they don't conduct democratic elections..."

What inequality are you discussing here? economic? if yes, then this has probably nothing to do with the elections, be it democratic or not. It is the lassire faire attitude of the government that allows people who work hard, are entreprenuers, to achieve the wealth you see. What highly visible inequality are we discussing here again?

"My ex-roommate in NUS couldn't stand the thought of returning to Hong Kong. After he got a job in Singapore, he brought his whole family (father, mother and sister) over."

I believe your roommate could be the exception. Most of the Hong Kongers who migrated to Singapore (Singapore government was making millions out of them just to fill in the application form to migrate during the 6/4 in 1989) have returned to HK, where the action is. In retrospect, many Singaporeans who are here in HK and have the PR (the real one, not like in Singapore where they can revoke it after 5 years - Singapore should call this the uPR un- permanent residence) have no inkling of returning back to Singapore.

"Hong Kong from Victoria Peak looks like a great economic success.
Yes, you see skyscrapers, luxury condominiums and all the superficial exterior signs of wealth. However, you have to examine the Hong Kong society more closely to see the stratifications - the high concentration of opportunities and wealth in a handful of people."

This is in the probably the normal proportions (rich vs poor) for a capitalistic society. At least it is earned and in private hands, not given away in millions to ministers, roti prata man, forecast and horizan viewing old man? in Singapore by the government who believes that they deserve this? What are their performance to date? What KPIs have they been measured upon, and what happens when these grossly overpaid ministers fail, and in a lot a cases, fail miserably.

..to be cont'd

soojenn said...

... Cont'd

"The rich live in hilltop villas and poor families who live on boats because cannot apartments. If you're really poor, you end up in a cage"

This happens in alot of the major cities, not only in HK. In Singapore, there are also many homeless, camping out on the beaches. Other international cities have also slum dwellers.

They know if they do not guard their freedom and rights fiercely, the pro-Beijing govt will just slip in legislation that will take them away.
- do you really think that they have such an impact/ think again. I think you are too much outside to perhaps really understand the politics behid this.

The Hong Kong story provides a lesson for all of us.
- what lesson would that be Lucky? "A combination of unbridled capitalism and lack of democracy resulted an unequal society in which there is widespread discontent." ?

Is this what you are perceiving? In HK, there are more indiviual rights than Singapore, if that's what you are comparing. The public will not get into famous defaming suits, just for calling their CEO a "tai mong tong" or any other criticisms. In Singapore, you can even be threatended with with lawsuits when you aske about "conflict of interests" questions. There are many examples which may not be point of your discussion here.

Anonymous said...

I was in HK and SZ for 2 years. The 2 places are more liveable. There are politicians, pseudo politicians, demonstrators, street peddlars, etc. But everybody is just doing their own thing and making out a living. I got about doing my work without participating in any of the above other than talking about it in pubs and bars. That should be the way, not with a gov lording over every aspects of our life and forcing us to accept what they think is good for the country.
I also think every Singaporean born in the country has a "birth right". This should not be given away. That's why I refuse to migrate. I'm born here and I own this land. Not the government of the day, be it the current or future one. dt

Anonymous said...

"I also think every Singaporean born in the country has a "birth right"."

You are right boy, claim it and protect it. Else it will be taken away from you and the high lord from heaven will smugly announce that he is protecting it on your behalf lest you lost it from your own misuse.

Anonymous said...

"at least our poor don't have to live in cages."

how about tents on beaches and the possibility of getting fined.

Anonymous said...

It is not a fair comparison. I have been living in HK for years and I under the whole system well.

The cage living quarters you see are exceptional. Most Hong Kongers could opt for Govt subsidized rental housing. Most of these people who live in the cage quarters are illegal migrants or people who doesn't want to live in the government rental flats.

The income disparity may be great, but the amount of social welfare they receive is quite substantial.

Anonymous said...

While on the surface, your article seems accurate enough, it obviously lacks the depth of understanding of the HK society that one can only get from living there over an extender period of time. I think you've sorely missed the general freedom the HK populace has despite the looming presence of their Beijing overlords.

I lived in HK for a dozen years before returning to Singapore. The apathy and general feeling of malaise in Singapore society is palpable. Conversely, not only is the average HK'er significantly more politically astute, but there is no apathy to the ills of the country unlike in Singapore where the general population hardly gives a damn.

contrarian said...

There are many who commend the social security benefits in HK. But despite all the praise, no one has explained these, how they work, and shown the others what it is.

1. CSSA is only available for those who meet the stringent means test. If you qualify for CSSA, that is well and good, and you do receive better benefits than under Singapore's social assistance. However, if you don't, you suffer the consequences of HK's extreme income inequality.

2. Public rental housing is for the bottom 30% of the population who earn a miserable wage with the high income inequality. The income and asset limits for the HK Housing Society's subsidised rental schemes are pegged to family unit size and quite low, for instance HK$18,000 a month and $440,000 in assets for a 3-4 person family.

3. HK's old age allowance or "fruit funds" are mentioned. This is how it works:

People aged between 65 and 69 are entitled to the normal old age allowance of HK$625 per month. Single applicants must not exceed the assets limit of HK$169,000, while a married couple must not have more than HK$254,000.

The 70-and-above set is entitled to the higher old age allowance of HK$705 a month with no means test required.

Around 68,000 elderly are now receiving the "normal" old age allowance while 400,000 are receiving the "higher" old age allowance.

My conclusion:
HK may have certain social assistance plans in place, such as public healthcare and discounted public transport, and takes better care of the destitute. But to pour praise on its social welfare system is misguided because it is neither as comprehensive nor as high-value as it is hyped up by some here. HK clearly is a free market, highly stratified economy, not a socialist paradise.

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