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HK edition / 2020-08 / 14 / Page007

Lessons from Singapore apply to HKSAR

By Richard Cullen | HK EDITION | Updated: 2020-08-14 08:07

Richard Cullen says the new law restores to HK what makes Singapore attractive: freedom from fear

The gloomiest doomsters are predicting the death of Hong Kong, once again. Few seriously buy into this narrative as Hong Kong has coped so well with so much economic and political turbulence over so many decades.

The concern that the shine is going off Hong Kong and that many individuals and businesses are considering relocation has more credibility, however. We have seen months of terrifying political violence and horrific levels of destruction across the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since June 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in January 2020. A resurgence in political violence has been seen more recently.

Singapore, repeatedly and understandably, has been cited as one prime, alternative destination for those currently considering relocating from Hong Kong. Former Singapore minister Kishore Mahbubani says that a key test of societal accomplishment, especially in East Asia, pivots on taking the measure of economic success and reviewing how widely shared it is within a given society. Mahbubani argues lucidly, using this yardstick, that Singapore has created the world's most successful society.

Although one can debate that "world's most successful" award, Singapore's socioeconomic achievements are clearly impressive, not to mention that it punches well above its weight on the world stage. What, though, lies at the core of what makes Singapore such an attractive relocation destination?

Above all, Singapore offers enduring stability and an exceptional level of personal security for all residents, businesses and visitors across the public domain. Its racial harmony, diligent educated work force and the dynamism of the city itself together make it an attractive prime location to live and work. But most of all, Singapore has assiduously maintained a core freedom-from-fear principle within its rule of law regime. This is the precept which was so gravely damaged in Hong Kong in 2019.

A pivotal part of the scheme that underpins this effective rule of law regime is Singapore's national security framework. Around 20 separate laws help safeguard national security, the most important being the Internal Security Act. According to the International Commission of Jurists, the ISA creates substantial executive powers which permit the president of Singapore, on national security grounds, to prohibit certain publications and to proclaim certain zones as "security areas", where very wide-ranging regulations may be applied, for example. The president is also, under the ISA, able to order renewable, indefinite detention without trial for up to two years, in certain cases. Judicial review of decisions taken under the ISA is only allowed to ensure procedural compliance. In very serious national security cases, the death penalty may apply.

Meanwhile, the media is rather more tightly regulated in Singapore than in Hong Kong. According to the Reuters Institute, the print and broadcast media are largely run by two major corporations which are associated with the governing party. Each of the two also maintains a dominant online presence. Freedom House says that the media in Singapore must take significant care to avoid speech which is "seditious, defamatory or injurious to religious sensitivities".

In 2019, Singapore introduced a robust anti-fake-news law to counter falsehoods (especially online) aimed at "exploiting" the city's "fault lines". This was "a disaster" for freedom of speech, according to human rights critics.

In a recent report, Transparency International ranked Singapore within the top 2 percent of least-corrupt jurisdictions. At about the same time, the US-based World Justice Report ranked Singapore within the top 11 percent (globally) for rule of law compliance. Reporters Without Borders, however, recently placed Singapore in the lowest 16 percent of jurisdictions for press freedom. Comparable figures for the HKSAR were: within the top 8 percent for freedom from corruption; the top 13 percent for rule of law compliance; and the top 44 percent for press freedom.

The HKSAR now has a new National Security Law. One of its primary aims is to restore stability and that core principle of any effective rule of law system, freedom from fear of violence, intimidation and the disruption of day-to-day life. As Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee from the University of Hong Kong aptly suggests, this is a part of the "new social contract" for the HKSAR.

A primary criticism of the National Security Law is that it is set to reduce freedom of expression in the HKSAR. Both local and offshore commentators have argued strongly that the successful operation of free markets depends on open exchange of information, including the communication of good and bad opinions of government performance.

Well, we certainly had the expression of very bad opinions on governance in abundance in 2019 in Hong Kong. This did not, though, help lift market performance in Hong Kong. On the contrary, these views were repeatedly expressed in such a violently extreme manner that business suffered grievously. Meanwhile, in Singapore, where media freedom to launch attacks on government performance is subject to very close monitoring, business continued to thrive.

According to Hong Kong's brain-drain and footloose-money forecasters, Singapore is a prime alternative for Hong Kong businesses and individuals considering relocation. This makes sense. But what an examination of the facts demonstrates is that this is so not because Singapore is a freewheeling democracy prioritizing the widest levels of freedom of expression, but because it maintains a rule of law system which prioritizes stability and freedom from fear, backed up by a stringent national security regime.

Simon Bolivar, the famous Latin American revolutionary leader, explained around 200 years ago that: "Anarchy is the worst enemy of freedom." Singapore has long understood this as we used to in Hong Kong. We are presently relearning this essential lesson.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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