Harbour View: HK will never have a Lee Kuan Yew

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Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew in a serious moment.

There was only one – Some want Hong Kong to follow the Lee Kuan Yew model today. Hong Kong today is not Singapore then. And there will never be another Lee Kuan Yew. 


Lee Kuan Yew’s passing this week has produced a genuine outpouring of grief for one who could lay claim to be the father of the nation state of Singapore.  Singapore’s progress during his Prime Ministership is undeniable. From establishing peace in a tumultuous time to its current economic success, Mr Lee earned the respect and love of many in his nation. However, it is not clear the model can be replicated in Hong Kong – even if some are trying.

Historical reminiscences are timely and interesting, but the relevance to modern Hong Kong is not inconsequential. There are many, here and no doubt north of the border, who would like to have the Lee Kuan Yew model imposed on Hong Kong, making it more like Singapore – economically vibrant, politically docile.  Certainly some have pointed to Hong Kong’s increasing political strife of the last decade as one of the reasons Singapore’s per capita GDP has dramatically outpaced Hong Kong’s since they last converged in 2003.

“Historical reminiscences are timely and interesting, but the relevance to modern Hong Kong is not inconsequential.


Different paths then and now

An attempt to impose such a model on Hong Kong is doomed to failure. While the British occupation of Hong Kong was not without its draconian moments in the wake of unrest, it was remarkably free for most of its history.  Freedom of speech, freedom to come, freedom of capital, freewheeling capitalism contrast with suppression of political dissent, strict controls on immigration and a government led economic model (the GLCs) of Singapore.  However, some believe that Hong Kong is being directed towards a more Singaporean model.

The rise of Chinese State Owned Enterprises in Hong Kong in a range of industries, from construction to finance, could see more employees coming under the type of political pressure, via their livelihoods, that seemed to have only very weak application in last year’s run up to Occupy Central. Freedom of speech, in the form of physical attacks and threats and advertising boycotts, has caused grave concern for the future of free speech here. Hong Kong’s own citizens seek to increase restrictions on those seeking to come.  The government does control some industry sectors and seems interested in getting into more.


We’re not 1960s Singapore

“The British occupation of Hong Kong was not without its draconian moments in the wake of unrest.

Singapore at independence faced both internal and external threats to its existence and security.  A firm hand was perceived to be needed to solve issues of race relations, threats from Communists, water insecurity and more.

Mr Lee was, it seems, the right man for the job. There is no need to repeat the many hagiographs that have been in print since his passing – Singapore’s success speaks for itself.  That doesn’t mean it is the right model for Hong Kong today.

Hongkongers, even after its recent relatively mild strife, do not sense an existential threat that requires a wholesale suspension of civil liberties. There is no sense of threat from being an isolated spit of land with no resources – we’ve figured out that doesn’t matter when it comes to getting rich. It may even be an advantage.

Our population is well-educated, worldly and well-informed.  While 1960s Singapore may have been a pre-modern state (defined by power), 2015 Hong Kong is decidedly post-modern (defined by ideas). While the government here regulates and controls some key sectors of the economy, it is less than in many so-called free nations.  Surely for Hongkongers, the first question of working with a new business partner is not “what government department are you supported by?” as in the Merlion City. Though in need of defence, speech is still fairly free. While not so thrilled about too many of some new arrivals, Hong Kongers welcome others and can travel abroad themselves with ease.


Leadership matters

Lee Kuan Yew has been characterised, not unfairly, as paternalistic and autocratic.  He has never, however, been accused of looking out for interests other than those of Singapore, the nation and her people.  The passing of autocrats often reveals skeletons in the closet and that will not happen with his son in the Prime Minister’s’ post.  Yet many doubt serious skeletons exist. Most importantly, Singaporeans believed he was for Singapore first – not himself, and not others.

“Singaporeans believed Lee Kuan Yew was for Singapore first.

This is another divergence from our present day Hong Kong.  Our system has a Chief Executive who theoretically serves two masters, the Central government and Hong Kong’s people. However, the CE is only chosen by one of those masters. Since the Handover and until our electoral system changes, the cynicism about who our leader serves will only grow, making it impossible for the CE to represent the people, much less bring them along.

Outside the system itself, is the type of leader the system and history produces. Mr Lee developed an acute political savvy through trial by many, many fires under the British, Japanese, Malays and finally Singapore. His savvy was used to bring Singaporeans along, whereas Hong Kong has as of yet to see an experienced, battle-scarred, career politician get a shot at being the top leader.


A different path

For many years, this writer has maintained that too many would like to see Hong Kong follow the Singapore model, rich and ‘well-behaved’.  It isn’t going to happen. Where we have autocrats, Hong Kongers resist. When speech is suppressed, they shout. Where they think their identity is under threat, they finally discover and articulate it.

No matter how much some may wish Hong Kong to follow Singapore’s footsteps from long ago, it isn’t going to happen.  Hong Kong is not, now, Singapore then.

And certainly, no Chief Executive of Hong Kong has, or ever would, compare themselves to one of the 20th Century’s most enduring statesman. But if they thought they could mould Hong Kong in the Lee Kuan Yew model, it would be necessary to adulterate a phrase better remembered than the person who said it (Lloyd Bentson, FYI), and tell that person:


Chief Executive, we knew Lee Kuan Yew.  And you sir, are no Lee Kuan Yew.