Fanny Law, a senior advisor to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, made an interesting observation this week. No, I am not referring to her throwaway remarks on a radio show that a 14-year-old Hong Kong girl had offered sex to protestors as part of her contribution to the “revolution”. Law, yes, interestingly that’s her surname, said Hong Kong laws have not been updated enough to deal with riots and violent chaos.
Well, let me tell you what else they have not updated. Take a leaf from your old favourite punching bag – Mr Lee Kuan Yew. If he had been alive, our late Mr Lee would have lectured them “I told you so.’’ For decades, Hong Kong pro-Western media and establishment had slammed our strongman for his iron-fisted approach towards governance and civil obedience. They frown upon strong government as if it must always be a bad thing.
A bit of history. As a young man, Lee had watched how brutal but effective the Japanese were in bringing their conquered subjects in line during the Japanese Occupation. He also had first-hand experience on how the communists used sabotage operations during the strikes and communal violence in the 50s and 60s.
Mr Lee had that all figured out more than five decades ago when he sought, through social engineering and socialist economic policies, to bring about stability. You want development and progress, you need political and social stability to get things done. Here’s a look at what Lee had amended to get it going.
Land Acquisition Act
One of the triggers for this summer of discontent in Hong Kong had been the widening income inequality, and its most widely cited symptom, the housing crisis.
Today, a private flat in Hong Kong of a size of 284 sq ft is reported to have fetched over HK$4 million or around HK$15,000-$16,000 psf. In Singapore, that amount would have fetched you the biggest new HDB flat with much to spare for renovation and a housewarming party. On a per sq ft basis, we are talking about Orchard Road district. 91 percent of Singaporeans own their own homes, of which the smallest is nearly 3 times that size. Only half of Hongkongers own their own homes. About one third are in public rentals, which have a waiting time of about five years!
How did Singapore arrive here? The Land Acquisition Act. Lee was a socialist. He grabbed land from the private owners and then redistributed them as affordable public homes and business premises to provide livelihoods. A year after independence in 1966, Lee knew he had to quickly acquire land to meet the pressing need for industrialisation, jobs and mass housing. He passed the Land Acquisition Act to help the Government make compulsory acquisition and control land costs. He gave it back to the people through cheap housing and industrial land. In many other countries, it ends up in their leaders’ and cronies’ pockets.
Almost everything we could see from Changi to Jurong was once owned by someone else before the government grabbed and re-released them for development. In the process, he delivered housing and industrialisation. LKY understood that home ownership gave the people a stake in the country, made them want to protect it. And he extended home ownership through the CPF scheme which makes quality homes affordable from an early age. He ensured even the poorest are not going to be living in cages or on the streets without dignity like the Hongkongers.
For decades, Hong Kong had no guts to institute land reforms. Housing had pretty much been outsourced to the self-interested tycoons who controlled supply and prices. Clearly, it is time for a major overhaul of its land and housing policies, from extending infrastructure to unusable land to a new distribution model on private/public housing. Mind you, Hong Kong is bigger than Singapore landwise. Either the Government grabs the land back from the tycoons, or they set up their own HDB to build and sell public flats at subsidized rates. Or a combination of both. Ironically while Hongkongers kept up their attacks on Beijing in the last few decades, the solutions to most of their problems are socialist or communist in nature. Which brings me to the next point.
EDB and GLCs
For decades, Singapore had been slammed for government’s visible hand in business. Critics in Hong Kong loved to pronounce the death of the Singapore model as the Government jumpstarted many of its industries in the early years to provide key public services such as airline, port, shipping, food, utilities, transport and others. EDB had been criticised for its role in picking winners and wooing and co-investing in industries to spur growth. But they did provide quality jobs and livelihood.
In Hong Kong, those services had been taken up by the rich developers. They enriched themselves at the expense of the majority. Hong Kong had tried the EDB route but they were reluctant to go for full-fledged direct investment and promotion, other than information sharing. Again, if Hong Kong is bold enough, they may want to consider Government-led intervention, some state-owned enterprises (read: Fairprice, GLCs) to compete with the private sector on pricing and, at the same time, provide opportunities for SMEs and jobs for the restless young. That would take a strong leader in the class of Deng Xiaoping and LKY to go against conventional belief to tell Hongkongers to take that non-market route. Again, another socialist move.
Vandalism and caning
Burning of an MTR entrance.
It was no coincidence that Singapore’s strong laws on vandalism also came about during its early days of development. LKY saw how the communists had used anti-social acts and hooliganism to disrupt public peace. He had no time for vandals and mass protests when he needed stability to get Singapore working.
LKY said it well when he introduced the Vandalism Act. “We have a society which, unfortunately, I think, understands only two things – the incentive and the deterrent. We intend to use both, the carrot and the stick. … A fine will not deter the type of criminal we are facing here. He is quite prepared to go to gaol, having defaced public buildings with red paint. Flaunting the values of his ideology, he is quite prepared to make a martyr of himself and go to gaol. He will not pay the fine and make a demonstration of his martyrdom. But if he knows he is going to get three of the best, I think he will lose a great deal of enthusiasm, because there is little glory attached to the rather humiliating experience of having to be caned.’’
So anyone who want to go out there and destroy public property would think twice. Even after superpower USA pleaded for leniency for vandalising teen Michael Fay, we still gave three of the best, literally. Today, Hong Kong rioters who burned MTR entrance, damaged turnstiles and vending machines, threw rocks onto rails, tore down lamp posts, vandalised police stations and airport knew they would be arrested and re-released with no bodily harm. Sometimes, you really need to kill a few chickens to scare the monkey.
Singapore during the Hock Lee riots.
LKY didn’t invent the Internal Security Act. It was a legacy of the British who had to deal with the Emergency, the race and communal riots in the 1950s. But LKY continued to put it to good use to enforce preventive detention, tackle subversion, suppress organised violence against people and property. It had been effective and received overwhelming support of the people. Sure, ISA has risks of political abuse. But in the last 30 years or so, the republic has only used it only against those who promoted terror, violence or disrupt racial and religious harmony. Man, what would Carrie Lam give to have the Act used to arrest and lock up the trouble makers without trial. The current revolving door process is never going to deter even a 14-year-old kid – you destroy public property, hurt police, you get arrested, you get re-released and you even ask for amnesty as part of your demands!
Hong Kong protestors throwing something at the police.
LKY introduced tough laws on strikes. Anyone who wants to instigate illegal strikes would be harshly dealt with. Think ISD and deportation. It is no accident that our number of strikes fell from hundreds to almost nil in the last few decades. When the SIA pilots tried to play punk with him, he threatened to sack them all and restart all over again.
National education, integration and patriotism
Protestors waving the UK flag.
LKY understood the importance of nation building. In 1965, Singapore was largely a community of immigrants from China, India, Malaysia with little affiliation to the nation. He introduced the pledge, national education, promoted the Singapore identity to break away from their colonist power and their countries of origin. He united the different Chinese dialect groups with Mandarin. He started National Service to promote nationhood, ownership and social integration.
In Hong Kong, the British did enough in the dying years of colonialism to do the reverse on China, egging and brainwashing the media, the intellectuals, teachers and subsequently the children from seeing China as their own country. The Hong Kong government couldn’t even control what is taught in the textbooks. In fact, the youth now pretty much saw China as the enemy, the butchers of Tiananmen massacre who must be stopped at all costs. The extradition bill was just an excuse. It could have been any other bill. The fact is they never saw China as their motherland. There is enough evidence to support that: witness the USA/UK flags and national anthem being sung during the protests. Incidentally, you fly a foreign flag and sing their national anthem in public here, Police would have moved in. For that matter, if the kids had invaded the US Congress or UK Parliament, they would have been shot before they could go past the door. Don’t believe it? Try climbing the White House fence.
I know this will be unpopular. But LKY decided from day one the media is not going to be the Fourth Estate. He disliked the foreign media who want to influence politics without having to win the vote. For the past 50 years, he clamped down harshly on foreign media and reminded them in no uncertain terms who runs this country. He closed foreign-influenced newspapers. He arrested subversive editors. He cut circulation. He revoked correspondents’ work permits. No questions asked.
The Hong Kong coverage so far by many foreign correspondents had been biased. To the extent that the foreign correspondent of a major American network could actually contradict herself to suit her anti-Police narrative within the same soundbite. You may not agree with me. But the media running amok filming the protestors has actually encouraged them to stage their spectacle for the cameras. It made the Police’s job difficult.
Accountability, legitimacy and Opposition
Personally, I think the biggest problem with One Country Two Systems is legitimacy. Not only the current generation failed to accept Chinese rule, they saw no legitimacy and accountability in the Hong Kong Government.
A Chief Executive selected by a small group of pro-establishment college presents little legitimacy and accountability. If the Chief Executive had been selected by the biggest political party in Legislative Council, there would have been some semblance of recognition of representation.
LKY knew the importance of accountability and governance. He put his programmes to the people. He delivered on them. When necessary, he used Draconian measures to get what he wanted for the greater good. At the end of five years, we all go to the polls and we decide if we still want him. In short, we have a say. And in one of the shrewdest political manoeuvres ever, he introduced the NCMP and NMP schemes to parliament. Which means even if there is a clean sweep by the ruling party, there would still be dissenting voices in Parliament to check on the Government. We are probably the only country in the world which guaranteed Opposition representation in the Constitution. This allows for a strong Government and mandate to carry out all the necessary policies needed swiftly. LKY would later introduce the GRC system which ensures there would always be minority representation in Parliament, so all races feel they have a say.
Hong Kong and China would now need to find a quick solution to deal with the issue of legitimacy and accountability. Governance by a self-selected head of government with no parliament representation is not working. Worse, the current system is equivalent to a parliament that is technically made up entirely of opposition ready to object to any policies by the Government. After all, the chief executive doesn’t belong to the majority party of parliament and doesn’t get elected directly by the people. The Chief Executive counts her support solely by virtue of some parties being pro-Beijing.
A strong leadership is needed to go up to Beijing to revisit the Basic Law and introduce legitimacy and accountability to governance. In that light, universal suffrage may not be a bad idea after all. So that when a democrat eventually wins and still can’t solve all their social and economic woes, Hongkongers will have no one to blame but only themselves.