Lee Kuan Yew's death has some implications for HK

Updated: 2015-03-26 07:30

By Tim Collard(HK Edition)

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No one in Hong Kong can be unaware or dismissive of the significance of the career of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who has died at a grand old age during the 50th anniversary of the independence of the country he created.

Not only was he arguably East Asia's finest political figure in the post-World War II era, but Singapore has so many outward similarities to Hong Kong that the two territories have often been seen as counterparts. Both small areas with small but densely packed populations and limited natural resources, both with a colonial British past, and both - in Singapore's case largely, in Hong Kong's entirely - culturally Chinese. Both pursued a route of great emphasis on education and technological development, and both established themselves as financial centers to the region - twin citadels of capitalism.

There are, of course, essential differences. Singapore was decolonized in 1963 and shortly afterwards became a proudly independent city-state, whereas Hong Kong remained a colony until 1997 when China resumed sovereignty. Thus, while Hong Kong's history and development remained closely linked to China throughout, Singapore and China came together only slowly. Singapore kept its distance from China during the period of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), but once Deng Xiaoping had assumed the direction of events, one of the first to grasp what Deng was attempting was Lee Kuan Yew, who welcomed this turn of events and prepared the way for dispelling suspicions and building better relations. Even so, it was not until 1990 that the two countries even established diplomatic relations.

By that time China's reform and opening-up policy was well established. The opening of the first special economic zones (SEZs), mostly on the border with Hong Kong, not only prepared the way for the ongoing economic integration of the future SAR, but also influenced the way the mainland was to develop in the Deng Xiaoping era. The Hong Kong model, used as the template for Shenzhen and the other SEZs, pointed toward unfettered free markets following the US pattern, though in Hong Kong that approach had been pioneered by the British Financial Secretary Sir John Cowperthwaite, who believed the best policy was for government to have very little involvement in the economy.

This was a very different paradigm from that adopted by Lee for Singapore. As a young man studying in Britain, he had been a socialist, who had once worked for the British Labour Party. He initially made his name in Singapore as a lawyer in the trade union movement. And in designing his new state he adopted the view that a "hands-on" policy was essential: Singapore could only develop under tight control from the top, and government must take direct responsibility for such matters as housing, education and transport.

Thus the two economic entities were established on very different bases, which are still visible today. Singapore's taxes are significantly higher than Hong Kong's, reflecting Lee's view that government has wide-ranging responsibilities and must be able to pay for them. This difference of view is not merely a theoretical difference of outlook: Singapore has to face the issue of a multi-ethnic population, which is hardly an issue in Hong Kong. In such conditions the emergence of a neglected section of the community could sow the seeds for considerable disruption; whereas in fact Singapore has been remarkably successful in avoiding ethnic or religious unrest, at a time when many parts of the world are undergoing a wave of destructive extremist activity.

But at the same time as safeguarding the welfare of Singapore's minority communities, Lee Kuan Yew was determined to create a Singaporean identity linked to historic Chinese culture. Long before Hong Kong turned seriously to learning Putonghua, Lee had made it one of the official languages of Singapore - even though he himself spoke Cantonese and Hokkien long before he learnt Putonghua - and Chinese culture and history are an integral part of education in Singapore.

And, since the establishment of closer relations with China during 1990s when the focus of development arguably moved from Guangdong to Shanghai and its hinterland, the economic policies of the mainland have moved toward Singapore's top-down and tight control approach rather than the classic free-market principles which characterize Hong Kong. Indeed, the policy focus of the current central government leadership, concentrating on tight discipline, the rule of law, and a firm rejection of corruption, could almost be a Lee Kuan Yew political program. (Though, naturally, the rule of law and the rejection of corruption are also well-established in Hong Kong.)

Thus, if Singapore attracts more sympathy from Beijing than Hong Kong does, that is largely the work of the late Lee Kuan Yew. It may also serve as a gentle warning to Hong Kong politicians.

The author is a former UK diplomat specializing in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing. He now works as a freelance writer and commentator.

(HK Edition 03/26/2015 page10)