Monday, 4 August 2014

The lure of Hong Kong

Some high-profile names have joined the latest wave of Singaporeans who have moved to Hong Kong for various reasons.
By Li Xueying, Hong Kong Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 3 Aug 2014

When Mr Stanley Tee was fired as corporate sales director in Hong Kong five years ago, it fired him up.

Instead of looking back, the Singaporean worked on growing a string of express barbershops. Today, he has 11 outlets across Hong Kong and 44 employees driven by the motto - peng leng zeng (cheap, good-looking and good-quality).

Mr Tee, 43, who was sent to Hong Kong in 2006 by a Singapore telecommunications company, believes he wouldn't have been able to reinvent himself so quickly if he had been back home.

"Singaporeans will wonder - is there a problem with you (for being fired)? Hong Kongers are more realistic. They say, what can you offer me? They look forward. They will not look at your past."

Mr Tee's experience is a unique one, but his takeaway is one echoed by a number of Singaporeans in Hong Kong - and also a reason why some have chosen to sink roots in this city.

For many decades, there has been a constant and easy flow of people between Hong Kong and Singapore, which share traits as former British colonies, Chinese-majority societies and cities at similar stages of development.

The latest wave of Singaporeans is notable for certain high-profile names, including former foreign minister George Yeo, now chairman of Kerry Logistics, and former Singapore Press Holdings senior executive Robin Hu, now chief executive officer of South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Last month, former National University of Singapore law academic Michael Hor became law dean at Hong Kong University. Media academic Cherian George joins Baptist University's journalism faculty this month.

Says Mr Yeo: "I'm struck by the growing number of Singaporeans working in Hong Kong and the to-ing and fro-ing between the two cities. I feel myself part of this two-way flow, as the old China trade which created Singapore and Hong Kong as two stations for the British East India Company flows again on a much larger scale."

From por-zai to nga-chart

Hong Kong has always been an attractive destination for Singaporeans.

Of the 207,000 overseas Singaporeans, about 12,000 to 15,000 are here - a fairly substantial number in this city of 7.2 million. By contrast, the most popular stop - Australia - has 50,000 Singaporeans.

Today, there are three broad categories of Singaporeans in Hong Kong.

The first are descendants of old-money patriarchs from South-east Asia who despatched sons to Hong Kong to grow the family business. Many of their offspring were born and bred in Hong Kong but retain their red passports.

Mr Ivan Owyang, 42, is the grandson of the late Chi Owyang, co-founder of Overseas Union Bank and later Singapore's ambassador to Thailand.

"I believe my grandfather planned that his eldest son Hsuan Owyang was to look after the Singapore operations and his second son John Owyang was to be posted to Hong Kong to expand the operation," he recounts. "Thus I was born in Hong Kong. However, I feel as much a Singaporean as most people; my son will do national service."

The late property tycoon Ng Teng Fong sent his son Robert to Hong Kong where Sino Group is today among the city's major developers. Third-generation scions Daryl and David look set to stay on.

Within this category is also a dwindling group of old political

idealists. In the 1950s and 1960s, the offspring of middle-class families in South-east Asia including Singapore, lured by a mix of Communist strongman Mao Zedong's propaganda and a sense of nationalism, set off for China, often breaking family ties in doing so, says anthropologist Bryan Wong. From 1949 to 1966, nearly 500,000 overseas Chinese returned to China.

When the Cultural Revolution broke out, they were reviled as bourgeois capitalists and many fled to Hong Kong. There were fewer than 10,000 of these Singaporeans, and about 500 to 800 are alive today, estimates Dr Wong.

Then there are those who came to Hong Kong to make their fortunes - and stayed for good.

From the 1960s, ambitious young Singaporeans sought out the Fragrant Harbour, a superior business market given its size and the relative sophistication of its population, many of whom hailed from Shanghai's mercantile classes.

One of the earliest to arrive was gangly 21-year-old Robert Chua, who was hired by TV station TVB in 1967 and who later made a name producing variety shows for the region.

"We Singaporeans were viewed by the Hong Kongers as country bumpkins then," he recounts with a chuckle. Singaporeans became known as "por-zai" (Singapore kid). Other early arrivals include food critic Chua Lam and businessman Chou Cheng Ngok, who later dotted Hong Kong's cityscape with Popular bookstores.

The peak influx came in the 1990s, as China opened up, says business academic Chan Yan Chong, renowned in Hong Kong for his investment advice columns.

"Singapore companies were keen on China but it was difficult then as we could enter only as tourists. There also weren't enough hotels or office buildings in China and so the employees were based here and commuted instead."

Today, the Singapore pool continues to see an infusion of fresh blood, with finance and law professionals looking for opportunities and higher pay - up to 30 per cent more than in Singapore. The new demand is partly driven by mainland Chinese companies, which view Singaporeans as bilingual and, in particular, as men with leadership skills due to National Service, says Mr Tony Teo, past chairman of the Singapore Association.

With many also brought in to take up increasingly senior positions, the local perception of Singaporeans has changed, Mr Chua says.

"In recent years, some Hong Kongers tell me they think Singaporeans, especially the young, are stuck-up."

Rather than "por-zai", some Singaporeans are now called "nga-chart" - arrogant.

A love-hate relationship

Indeed, there has always been some tension between the denizens of the two cities.

Singaporeans in Hong Kong tend to have strong reactions to the city, says Mr Tee.

"Those who hate it, hate it for the politicking, the fakeness sometimes compared to Singaporeans who are more 'straight', or just the rudeness of the market stallholders."

Those who cannot speak Cantonese find it difficult to fit in. Others who yearn for a more settled lifestyle despair at quirks as random as water droplets dripping from air-conditioning units along pavements.

But those who love living in Hong Kong do so with a certain passion.

Mr Hu calls Hong Kong "a pulsating city that accelerates at the thrilling heartbeat of China". For him, in particular, helming Hong Kong's main English-language daily is exciting, given its role in chronicling China's changes.

"The China story is as exhilarating as it is ever evolving and deserves to be told without bias, contempt or glorification, and at SCMP, we see it as our responsibility to do so," he says.

Hong Kong's laissez-faire business environment and emphasis on civil liberties and political diversity also appeal to those who feel it offers opportunities that Singapore does - or did - not.

UOB chairman Hsieh Fu Hua recounts his four years here from 1996 to 2000 fondly. He had set up a finance house but the regulatory framework in Singapore then was "rigid" and unwelcoming of small start-ups. This has since changed, he says.

"Hong Kong was more receptive to companies big and small. And that spirit of enterprise was invigorating. You can be new in town - and make a success of it."

This remains true today, say those in Hong Kong now.

Corporate lawyer Basil Hwang, 42, describes an environment of "intellectual freedom to think as boldly as you wish".

"So long as you get the job done, no one dictates how it is done, or if it is permitted. You come with an idea, and then you check, is it legal? Whereas in Singapore, the first question is, is it legal?"

Lawyer Angela Wang, 56, who came to Hong Kong in 1991 and later set up her own firm, agrees. A fundamental difference in attitudes, she points out, is between "doing the right thing according to rules versus doing the best thing".

"They believe in motivating people through money - if I agree to the price, you will be motivated and that's good for me. They are thus more demanding; if you tell them you cannot apply for delisting because ABC already said so, they will ask you to think of a different way. Be creative.

"But if I squeeze you - which is how clients do it in Singapore - you won't be happy, and I won't get the best performance out of you."

At the same time, there are those who found Hong Kong a haven after encountering rejection back home.

Mr Chua says he tried to return home in the 1970s and contribute to Singapore's TV industry but was brushed off by the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. He says he does not know why.

Dr George meanwhile did not get tenure at Nanyang Technological University - a move that sparked talk that it was politically motivated due to his critical commentaries of the government.

Of his choice to move to Hong Kong, he says: "In my particular academic sub-field of journalism studies as well as related sub-fields like political communication, Hong Kong is No. 1 in Asia."

He wrote on his blog: "It was a bittersweet irony that, when I was forced to start searching, universities in Hong Kong welcomed me more warmly than did university administrators at home."

Though a small city like Singapore, Hong Kong seems more embracing of people with a past. It is not because it is a kinder place; rather, it is because Hong Kongers are more focused on what one can offer then. As Ms Wang puts it: "This place has short memories, they don't care. You are what you do, you are what you can deliver."

This, say those who are here, is something Singapore can and should learn from.

Mr Hsieh sums up Hong Kong's appeal this way: "If you don't fit in in Singapore, you come to Hong Kong and it can fit you in. That is the beauty of Hong Kong."

It is not all rosy though.

Some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Hong Kong's blatantly materialistic culture. Others decry a creeping "China-centric" culture in industries such as finance.

One banker who just returned to Singapore after seven years here says: "There is a difference between how Singaporeans and the Chinese do things and treat people. For the Chinese, the ends justify the means. I made the decision that I am Singaporean at the end of the day, and I want to adhere to my standards."

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