Visitors walk along the bridge leading to the Merlion Park in Singapore. AP
David Pierson, Tribune news service
Protesters in Hong Kong have shown that demonstrations about government policies can erupt anywhere, from outlying suburbs and shopping malls to government offices and one of the busiest airport terminals in the world.
In Singapore, protests are restricted to a park the size of a softball field benignly called Speakers’ Corner. On most days, the park’s most vocal contingent are the chirping birds perched in the pink poui trees that ring the space alongside police cameras. On the rare days people demonstrate, it’s only after their topics have been scrutinized and granted government approval.
Order is paramount in Singapore, which is largely viewing with a mixture of awe and apprehension the turmoil in Hong Kong tied to proposed extraditions to mainland China and democracy issues. Unrest of that magnitude is unthinkable in this city-state of meticulous laws run by the world’s most enduring ruling political party outside China and North Korea.
Singapore’s stability has fuelled speculation it would be the first to benefit if problems persist in Hong Kong, a city with which it shares a rivalry and kinship as a former British colony and bustling financial centre with attractively low taxes. Multinational companies, expatriate workers and wealthy individuals looking to stash their assets somewhere safer than Hong Kong will flee for Asia’s next best thing, the thinking goes among some observers.
But the government in Singapore, which became a sovereign nation in 1965, has shown no desire to play along. Rather than exploit the opportunity, the country’s monetary authority has urged bankers not to woo wealthy clients away from competitors in semiautonomous Hong Kong. At the same time, top officials have rejected the notion there’s anything to gain from the turbulence 1,600 miles away.
“There is some superficial talk, ‘Oh you know, Singapore benefits,’” Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters last week, according to a government transcript. “I don’t believe that. We benefit from stability across the region, including Hong Kong. If China does well, Hong Kong does well, the region does well, we do well. There’s no profit in seeing instability. And if Hong Kong is at odds with China, it’s a problem for everyone, including us.”
The cautious approach reflects Singapore’s delicate position on the world stage. The country is walking a tightrope maintaining favourable relations with the United States and China, two powers that appear to be embarking on a new Cold War.
Appearing to take pleasure in Hong Kong’s difficulties could needlessly inflame tensions with an increasingly assertive Beijing at a time when the White House has shown little interest in rallying behind demonstrators in the city — a calculus facing every country in China’s orbit.
Weeks of protests have resulted in more than 700 arrests and many injuries, including a woman whose eye was ruptured with a bean bag projectile fired by police. Disruptions caused by the demonstrations have been felt across the city, including the temporary shutdown of Hong Kong’s airport this week.
Singaporean officials and mainstream commentators have emphasized the economic threat the demonstrations pose and conveyed sympathy for authorities in Hong Kong. The United Nations and Amnesty International have raised concerns about excessive force deployed by Hong Kong police.
“I think a confused, muddied picture has been presented because international news organizations have dealt with very superficial analysis engaged in labeling,” Shanmugam said in his recent interview, which included Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “All protesters are automatically ... democracy fighters. Police on the other hand are oppressive, attacking the forces of democracy, using excessive force.”
Other establishment voices have called the protests futile, warning that more defiance of Beijing’s authority will only result in a harsher response.
“We watch what is unfolding in Hong Kong with sympathy,” Bilahari Kausikan, an outspoken retired Singaporean diplomat wrote in the foreign affairs publication Global Brief last month. “But it is the sympathy that one feels for a friend or relative so desperate as to contemplate suicide. This is not something most Singaporeans would care to emulate.”
It’s unclear what the majority of Singapore’s 5.6 million population thinks about Hong Kong’s protest movement. A survey of 1,000 citizens in June found more than two-thirds of respondents supported the protests against the extradition bill that sparked the demonstrations, which are now into their 10th week. The survey was conducted before some of the more polarizing actions by protesters such as the trashing of Hong Kong’s legislature.
Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, said his students expressed admiration for the demonstrators, who sparked some soul searching about whether they would do the same if their rights were threatened.
“But I also see the support starting to waver,” Tan said, “partly because of the violence. The methods that have been employed in recent weeks (have) dampened Singaporeans’ enthusiasm, particularly among older Singaporeans.”
Singapore is by no means free of tension. The government is acutely sensitive to the racial dynamics between its majority ethnic Chinese and minority Indian and Malay populations. Race and religion are off limits for protesters in Speakers’ Corner.
Singapore is often compared to Hong Kong because of its size (5.6 million Singaporeans versus 7.4 million Hong Kongers) and shared culture (about a fifth of Singapore’s Chinese population is Cantonese). But it’s the differences that help explain why one former colony continues to project stability while the other is seized with unrest.
Singapore’s sovereignty allows it to shape policy the way it sees fit, unlike Hong Kong, which answered to London and now Beijing. Singapore’s government imposes limits on freedom of assembly and press, but it delivers on public education and economic upward mobility. As a result, the country isn’t beset by the wealth gap that underpins much of the discontent roiling Hong Kong.
More than 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing, helping keep property values at reasonable levels. Average home prices in Singapore are equal to 4.6 times the gross annual median household income compared to 20.9 times for Hong Kong, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Study. (Los Angeles stands at 9.2.)
Head hunters, public relations companies and property brokers say there are no signs of an exodus from Hong Kong, though it could take months for businesses to plan a relocation.
Skepticism abounds that Singapore could replace Hong Kong as a base for companies to serve China, Asia’s most important market. Singapore has also made it more difficult for businesses to hire foreign professionals by requiring many companies to advertise jobs locally before seeking outsiders. At the very least, industry officials say, companies are contemplating contingencies should the worst-case scenario — armed intervention — arise in Hong Kong.
“It’s a bit early” to relocate, said Nick Chia, managing director at the executive recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates in Singapore. “Having said that, I don’t think businesses like instability.”
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