The comparison of Hong Kong and Singapore has long been a lively topic of conversation across Asia, and in many other parts of the world. However, until recently, the winner has always been Hong Kong. That began to change with Beijing’s takeover in 1997, when the 99-year lease that Britain held on the territory, ran out – many feel that it was strategically myopic of the British Government at the time (1898), to only negotiate a 99-year lease instead of a much longer one.

     Both Hong Kong and Singapore exist, as they are today, because the British Empire needed bases to support and defend their trade routes – both places were tiny, insignificant, villages before those developments. Hong Kong was the end-product of the Opium Wars between Britain and China (the First Opium War, 1839-1842), and between Britain, France and China (the Second Opium War, 1856-1860). These wars were fought because the Qing Dynasty in China tried to stop the British opium trade from India to China and, later, the British/French opium trade. China lost both wars, and British forces got all the way to Beijing, destroying the gardens of the Imperial Palace, before negotiations gave them Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Those wars also resulted in the ultimate fall of the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911/12. The Chinese are notorious for having long memories, and the memory of that conquest almost certainly colors Xi Jinping’s views of the West today.    

     The founding of present-day Singapore is less bloody. It was founded by Stamford Raffles in 1819 as a British trading post – the famous hotel, Raffles, which still exists, is named after him. Raffles negotiated the use of this nodal peninsular, as a trading and strategic base, with the Johor Sultanate because of its location at the junction of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, there is evidence that it was a serious trading post in the 14th century, presumably, also, because of its strategic location.

     Hong Kong had always won the battle between the two cities in terms of economic dynamism, the state of its urban fabric, the vibrancy of city life and its spectacular landscape. However, after China’s takeover in 1997, and the more recent draconian national security law passed in 2020 at the direction of Beijing, the game is over in favor of Singapore; over 200,000 expatriates have left Hong Kong in the past three years, together with even more indigenous Hong Kongers. In contrast, and maybe as a direct result, the professional population of Singapore has increased by 16% over the same time period.

     When China took over Hong Kong, the cities’ GDP per person were remarkably similar (26,376 in Singapore and $27,330 in Hong Kong). Today, Singapore numbers are 1.7 times those of Hong Kong, and Singapore’s economy has grown by one-seventh while Hong Kong’s has completely stagnated. China is gradually destroying Hong Kong in order to bring it completely under Beijing’s control. No wonder Taiwan looks at Hong Kong with great trepidation for its own future, should China decide to cross the Taiwan Straits. The bungling of China’s response to the Covid pandemic has made the situation in Hong Kong far worse. Deaths per 100,000 people in Hong Kong were nearly three times higher than in Singapore.

     Singapore is no paradise, however. Its draconian criminal laws have executed over 500 people in the last three decades. The streets are safe, which is a blessing, but at what cost. The standing joke, not so funny in reality, has been that Singaporian law stated that whatever appendage you used to commit a crime, would be cut off…..and I mean any appendage.

     Overall, the future looks far brighter for Singapore than it does for Hong Kong. The youth in Singapore are slowly pushing back against the government’s boundaries, and they seem to be gaining traction without serious reprisals, at least so far.

     Singapore is at a cross-roads, but Hong Kong is at a dead end, with only darkness at the end of the tunnel ahead. One of the most vibrant and attractive cities in the world is becoming a poster child for what Chinese global ambitions could mean for the rest of the world if those ambitions are successful.

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