If you follow regional and global indexes on liveability, education, governance and more, increasingly it appears Singapore is the place to be in Asia while Hong Kong has been reduced to an also-also-also-ran.

Tokyo, Osaka and other Japanese cities consistently outrank us as well. Indeed, lately it seems our sense of competitive loss and embarrassment is rising just about as fast as the pollutants in the air we breathe and the sky-high prices we pay for the shoebox flats we grudgingly call home.

“Asia’s world city”—long Hong Kong’s PR tagline—has always been more aspiration than reality; now some might call it downright delusional.

Carrie Lam in Davos in January 2019. File Photo: GovHK.

That said, for longtime Hongkongers, especially those who have also spent a fair amount of time feeling uncomfortable and disoriented in authoritarian, hyper-organised, antiseptic Singapore, there is something intangible yet profoundly stirring about our city, despite its many flaws, that these indexes can never come close to capturing.

Call it our character, our core, our spirit, our essence. Whatever you call it, we’ve got it, Singaporeans don’t. That critical presence and absence is not going to show up in liveability surveys that typically poll itinerant expat professionals looking for the fattest pay cheque and the cushiest living arrangements they can find.

It’s safe to say that most of the people surveyed by organisations such as ECA International, which has ranked Singapore as the most liveable city in Asia for 14 consecutive years and this year assigned Hong Kong the lowly 41st position, have little more than superficial knowledge of the people, politics and culture of the places they are praising or trashing based on their personal finances and levels of expat comfort.

Occupy Central? Puppet masters skulking in the Sai Ying Pun bowels of the liaison office? Missing booksellers? Ousted legislators? Alibaba, the South China Morning Post and self-censorship across the journalistic board? Self-determination? Independence?

The list goes on of gripping, hot-button issues and dramatic episodes that make up the epic tale of the ongoing battle for Hong Kong’s heart and soul, but most career-climbing expats pay scant attention to such “local” developments.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

No doubt they would rather pursue the almighty dollar in nanny-state Singapore, where zero-tolerance officials would never allow anything remotely like the 79-day pro-democracy Occupy movement to occur and where public criticism of city leaders such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong—eldest son of the city-state’s founder and long-serving first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew—will likely land you in court facing a costly defamation suit and possible jail sentence.

Just ask Singaporean blogger Leong Sze Hian, the latest of many to be sued by Singaporean authorities. His alleged crime: accusing the prime minister of helping his now deposed Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, to launder a massive amount of booty from Malaysia’s now notoriously insolvent 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) state investment fund.

A little background: Najib is currently facing a wide array of money-laundering and corruption charges related to 1MDB. Some of that purloined 1MDB cash spilled through Singapore. At this point, there is no proven connection between Lee and Najib, but should the topic be legally verboten for public discussion?

Hong Kong leaders may wish they could get away with court-enforced gag orders on criticism and dissent, but they can’t because free speech and judicial independence, threatened as they are by the powers that be in Beijing, are ingrained not just in the Basic Law, our post-handover mini-constitution, but also in our consciousness and, dare I say, our very souls.

Leong Sze Hian. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

In another recent example of Singapore’s routine suppression of free speech, human rights activist Jolovan Wham was fined S$2,000 (HK$11,640) for organising a two-hour conference on “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” during which Hong Kong’s youthful pro-democracy icon, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, made an appearance via Skype.

In Singapore, Wham was found guilty of “organising a public assembly without a permit” in addition to inviting a foreigner to speak at such a gathering, even though Wong appeared remotely. He was fined an additional S$1,200 (HK$6,980) for refusing to sign a statement that he had given to police concerning his case.

If Wham refuses to pay the fines, as he has vowed, he will then spend 16 days in jail.

Hey, life in Hong Kong may get you down now and then, but the day the Hong Kong government jails someone for Skyping with a foreigner—that’s the day we should all pack up and book a ticket to Singapore.

No, check that: Tokyo or Osaka would be far better options.

Jolovan Wham. Photo: Jolovan Wham, via Twitter.

Hong Kong is a city still scratching, clawing and fighting— seemingly against all odds—to become a fully fledged civil society with all the democratic rights and personal freedoms that it was promised at the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty nearly 22 years ago and that are still enshrined in the Basic Law today.

Our fight continues; in Singapore, the battle was over before it even began.

So let’s freely acknowledge Singapore’s advantages over Hong Kong. The list is long and convincing: cleaner air, comfortable and affordable government-subsidised housing, a road-pricing scheme that significantly reduces traffic congestion and a well-coordinated, competent government bureaucracy that gets things done with remarkable efficiency.

For good measure, let’s add to that list a far better standard of English.

There is a lot Hongkongers can learn from Singaporeans, and we should all watch, listen and improve.

At the same time, we might pose a couple of deeper, darker questions to our Lion City cousins: Who are you? What do you stand for?

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.