For Asians (and expats in Asia), this has caused decades of arguments as to which is a better place to live, to work, and to play. Apart from the obvious – that Hong Kong is clearly better – a transnational history of these two ‘autonomous’ city-states might provide an ideal platform to definitively answer this age-old debate. In fact, I believe that if you analyze the importance of these two cities by their histories as nodes of transportation and, thus, communication (specifically during the period of a British-dominated Indian Ocean) you will discover the primacy of Hong Kong over Singapore as transnational centres in SE Asia.

Of course, this could be an essay topic in of itself so to attempt to answer this question in this blog post would be simply too much. However, what has become clear to me, through readings on the 1915 Singapore Mutiny and case-study analyses on 20th century Hong Kong government (under British rule), is that these two city-states are microcosms of the transnational world that they engage with and interact with through inter-regional networks. So, the essential backbone of my argument will be the progression of the two centres of transnational trade and movements from their 19th century usage by the British to the late-20th century. Additionally, a focus on the two centres in relation to the British Empire (and their actual importance to the British economy and rule – both in contemporaries’ and modern historians’ views) would be the second major point of analysis. Admittedly, the second point of this pro-HK argument will be more difficult to prove than the first. As such, I won’t even attempt to explain how I would go about proving this point; yet, I will note of the increasing importance being placed by historians on the British Empire’s usage of Singapore as a node of migration networks. Likewise, I would refer to Hong Kong’s rapid development from fishing village to centre of administration for British officials during their colonial-style domination of Chinese society and economy.

Relating back to the grander narrater of my argument – that is, the overall development of Singapore and Hong Kong within a set time frame (longue durée in a similar fashion to Hoerder) – I believe that focusing from the 1830s, which was more or less the decade of British colonisation for both city-states, it will be possible to denote the comparative importance that HK and Singapore held in the modern, globalised world. Initially, it would appear that Singapore was the more significant node of communication and trade, with the island becoming a global centre for rubber trade. However, as my argument evolves, I would highlight the reversal of roles in the global economy that occurred at the turn of the century. During the 1900s, the British saw a gradual rise in the use of Hong Kong as a global port and cosmopolitan city-state economy. Following the Second World War, Hong Kong became the definitive centre of British administration in the SE Asian region. It is not just that Hong Kong was the first of the Four Asian Tiger Economies to undergo rapid industrialisation; it is also the fact that control over Singapore weakened as British consolidation of power was threatened by natives and non-Singaporeans. Perhaps, Hong Kong can thank a more secure form of administration for its hyper-paced economical growth. Or perhaps, I have merely distorted facts to support my own conclusion – IT wouldn’t be surprising given the fact that I think Hong Kong is the greatest city [really a country :)] in the world.

Singapore vs Hong Kong

2 thoughts on “Singapore vs Hong Kong

  • April 19, 2018 at 9:44 am

    This is an interesting and insightful study into the comparison between Singapore and Hong Kong’s relationship with Britain during the colonial era, Ryan. As someone who actually lives in Singapore, I’ve heard this debate numerous times (so I can definitely empathise with this argument), as both countries claim to be the economic capital of Asia.

    My main point of contention lies with the idea of the argument. I wouldn’t necessarily compare each country based on their history, because truthfully, Singapore and Hong Kong had different experiences under the British Empire. It should be noted that Singapore’s an extremely new country, gaining independence from the British in 1965. It’s only had three prime ministers (Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong). Hong Kong only gained independence from the British in 1997, and is also relatively new. While it’s a separate territory, its government is intwined with that of China. It should, therefore, be noted that Hong Kong has never had complete autonomy or sovereignty. Once they gained independence from the British, they returned to China as a special administrative region.

    Hong Kong was definitely a significant trading port, especially in the treaties after the Opium Wars with China, and the British were able to control significant aspects of trade from the territory. Delving into their colonial history, I definitely agree with your point that Hong Kong became a significant center of administration for British officials in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, I would also argue for Singapore’s case in this, especially during World War 2, where the British used Singapore as a significant naval base to deter Japanese troops. Singapore became a huge British administrative region as well- just for a different reason, so much so that Winston Churchill even referred to it as the “Gibraltar of the East”. I do think that this, to some extent, has influenced the National Service conscription (compulsory army for every male over 18 in Singapore) that came about post-independence and has led to Singapore’s strong army system.

    In general, I think that your point about Hong Kong being more crucial to the British Empire is extremely well founded. However, I wouldn’t use this argument to compare each country today, as the modernisation programs that Singapore embarked on under Lee Kuan Yew in the late 1960s and early 1970s definitely, in my opinion, put them miles ahead of Hong Kong. I would definitely argue that today, Singapore is the financial capital of Asia, and is also the primary transnational center. But then again, that’s an argument for another day 🙂 Eitherway, really enjoyed reading this!

  • April 22, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Let me make the case for why I think Tokyo is the best city in Asia. Tokyo has long been one of the most urbanized, wealthy and cultural cities in the world since the eighteenth century under the Tokugawa shoguns after being transformed from being a simple fishing village. When Tokyo modernized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and opened up to Western influence, its industry was very advanced and it provided much of the support for Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1904-5. It also had one of the largest and most advanced subways in the world from 1927, not to mention the rapid intellectual progress which the country underwent in this period. Even after Tokyo was bombed heavily in World War II and economically crippled, its post-war economic recovery to return to being one of the world’s largest financial centers was remarkable. It quickly rebuilt its infrastructure and was so strong that it was able to host the 1964 Olympics. Moreover, it is home to many of the world’s largest multinational corporations and global brands which exist throughout the world. You may also be surprised to know that Tokyo has the highest GDP of any city in the whole world with $1,520 billion GDP, which is about 40% higher than the city in second place (New York) and neither Singapore nor Hong Kong appear in the top ten.

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