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Where Hong Kong Hits Home

Singapore watches its twin city from afar, and considers its own future.


SINGAPORE — On the night of October 1, a candlelight vigil lit up Singapore’s Hong Lim Park. Roughly 300 people dressed in black, and wearing yellow ribbons in solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong chanted slogans and sang Cantonese protest songs. It was a lively event — but not without a touch of irony.

Hong Lim Park is a 2.3 acre patch that is currently this semi-authoritarian city state’s only space for legal public demonstrations (some have called it a token pressure valve). The vigil itself unfolded peacefully enough. But in the days since, the event — staged to show support for those fighting for democratic freedoms in Hong Kong — has found itself facing the business end of some of Singapore’s less-than-liberal institutions.

Foreigners were barred from participating in the night’s event — organizers need a police permit for foreigners to join protests, even within the designated free-speech area (on Facebook, event organizers encouraged foreign residents to come and "observe"). Several non-Singaporeans who attended — some of them from Hong Kong — have reportedly been questioned since by police investigating "offences under the Public Order Act." And the Singapore police force has issued stern-sounding warnings: Foreigners, a spokesman said, "should not import their domestic issues from their countries into Singapore and conduct activities which can disturb public order," and "those who break the law will be seriously dealt with." 

As Hong Kong erupted in a groundswell of historic protests last week, some in this Southeast Asian city, which has long claimed a "special relationship" with Hong Kong, looked on with an eye toward how the protests have resonated — or not — at home.

"Singaporeans complain about this and that, but are we willing to go out into the streets with our grievances?" asked vigil co-organizer Rachel Zeng, 31. "A lot of people I’ve spoken with fear losing their jobs or going to jail. But the people of Hong Kong take so much ownership in their own country that they’re willing to do so," she said. 

Over the course of their history, Singapore and Hong Kong have often seemed like twinned cities, separated at birth. Both are former nineteenth-century British colonies with ethnic-Chinese majorities. Both cities are major Asian financial centers, among the wealthiest in the region, if not the world. And both are less than fully and freely democratic: Hong Kong as a result of its lack of universal suffrage and Singapore on account of far-reaching defamation laws and restrictions on media ownership. They have been rivals in trade, investors in each other’s cities, and often both at the same time, each pushing the other on. Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, who governed the city state for three decades has said he once looked to Hong Kong as a source of inspiration when plotting his country’s path to development: "Singapore is indebted to the example of Hong Kong," he said in 1968. "It is like the four-minute mile. Until someone broke the barrier and made the mile in four minutes, it was doubted whether anybody could make it."

The ties run deep: Countless citizens of each city live, work, and study  in the other. And in the pre-and-post-handover years, as Britain prepared to return Hong Kong to mainland Chinese rule, Singapore welcomed Hong Kongers with open arms, under a scheme that allowed them to obtain permanent residency. 

But relations between the two cities have been as marked by differences as by their similarities: Singaporeans envy Hong Kong its freewheeling media scene, and its open-market public transport system, while housing-crunched Hong Kong eyes Singapore’s extensive public-housing provision. And for some, the Occupy protests, though dwindling, highlight the contrast between Hong Kong’s passionate advocacy, marked by a history of large-scale protests, and the feeble activism of the Lion City, where students have been criticized for being more interested in straight A’s than politics, and law-abiding residents more keen on preserving order than overturning it in the name of social justice or democracy.

Y.H. Tan, 38, a marketing manager here, said in an email interview that his biggest concern about the Hong Kong protests were about whether they would disrupt his plans to holiday in the city in the coming weeks. He was concerned, he said, about access to popular attractions like the Mongkok area of the city — recently the site of violent clashes between demonstrators and anti-Occupy protestors, who some believe may have been in the employ of Beijing.  (His plans, it seems, are now likely safe).

"As a Singaporean it’s not really my concern what HK does," Tan said. If he lived there, he said, "I’d be pretty pissed if protesters were disrupting my daily work and office commute." He did offer that he didn’t think Singaporeans had the guts to stage anything on a similarly large scale, for fear of reprisals.

In a piece in the magazine The Diplomat, titled "Singapore’s Pallid Hong Kong Solidarity," journalist and social justice blogger Kirsten Han pointed out the stark contrast in the cities’ response to protests, and Singapore’s lack of grassroots activism or civil disobedience.  

Han focused in particular on how Singaporeans conducted themselves during a recent demonstration over the management of Singapore’s pension fund, where angry activists — in the designated protest area in Hong Lim Park — deliberately disrupted a performance by special-needs children organized by the YMCA by marching into the performance area and chanting slogans. The demonstrators and their tactics were roundly denounced — labeled "anarchic" and "confrontational" by political commentator Devadas Krishnadas and others.  

"Recent events have made it clear that there’s one aspect in which there can be no comparison [between Singapore and Hong Kong]: that of civil society and grassroots political activism," Han wrote.

Singaporean civil society remains clumsy and in its infancy, thanks to decades of suppression under the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence, and has put in place restrictions on various freedoms that many argue have helped keep it in power. (Singapore has been a one-party state since it became independent in 1965, though in the last general election in 2011, the ruling People’s Action Party posted its biggest losses since independence, snagging 60.14% of the vote but losing an entire constituency to the opposition Workers’ Party.) Singapore, in fact, does have an often-forgotten history of student activism: In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, students clashed with the authorities over issues like transport strikes, bus fare hikes, and the 1963 merger with northern neighbor Malaysia. But these fledgling protests, quashed again and again, never developed into a tradition of free speech and organized dissent: They were often framed as a leftist or Communist threat to national security, and the government detained activists without trial under the Internal Security Act.

"In Hong Kong there’s a lot more sophistication in the way they’re able to articulate demands. There is a tradition of protest in Hong Kong that we lack here in Singapore," said Terence Lee, an assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, who studies civil-military relations in Asia and has written about authoritarian rule.

In addition to lacking a tradition of protest,  beyond griping to each other in coffee shops, many Singaporeans don’t actually spend that much time grappling with the island-state’s relationship with its various shades of democracy. Most seem to prefer to focus on the less-abstract business of day-to-day life, like their high-stress jobs, the now-cooling housing market, and the cost of healthcare.

Practical-minded residents here have pointed out that Hong Kong’s protestors are objecting to non-democratic circumstances that are very different from Singapore’s: mainland China is determining the rules of the city’s elections. Singapore, an independent city-state, is answerable to no such larger jurisdiction. If it is less than democratic, the condition is one imposed from within by an elected government — and accepted by many Singaporeans in return for stability and prosperity. 

But Hong Kong’s protests are also about expanding the limited circle of power that will decide the candidates for the 2017 election and about the city’s widening wealth inequality — an issue that has resonance here. Singapore’s Gini coefficient is huge, Lee said, and while the regime engages in wealth redistribution that Hong Kong doesn’t, income inequality has gained traction as an issue.

Singaporean authorities initially steered clear of commenting on Hong Kong’s protests, preferring instead to stick to a strategy of treading gingerly in regional disputes. Singapore also has close ties with the Chinese mainland, training top officials in a dedicated postgraduate program and setting up massive joint ventures like industrial parks, the Tianjin eco-city, and most recently a massive food production scheme in Jilin.

As demonstrators stayed in the streets in Hong Kong, officials in Singapore appeared to weigh in to take Beijing’s side: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a talk two days after the Hong Lim Park vigil that it was Hong Kong and Beijing’s responsibility to work things out, and that other parties getting involved would not help. And in an interview with Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao published on Oct. 4, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam made Singapore’s strongest statement about the protests yet, commenting that Western media reports had been biased against China, which was simply trying to grow its economy before democratizing, he said. The protests, Shanmugan noted, would not affect Singapore.

In fact, some have argued, Singapore may even be poised to benefit materially from Occupy Central, should investors and business lose confidence about Hong Kong’s stability and begin looking for another Asian financial capital in which to park their money. But Singapore’s potential gains from a Hong Kong in flux are no sure thing — over the long term, international investors looking for a route into the mainland might eventually come to prefer Shanghai, should its free trade zone experiment be successful. (And in the short run, investors have been feeling the pain of market turmoil in Singapore as well: last week (to Oct 3), Singapore’s Straits Times Index fell four days in a row, ending 1.18 per cent lower than the previous week’s close.

Either way, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution has sparked at least a little soul-searching among Singaporeans and a little bit more reflection on what they stand for. As solidarity-vigil organizer Zeng put it, "I think this is the moment where all of us have to reflect upon our own conviction."

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