Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hong Kong or Singapore ?

An old stale subject, but since I happened to read an article in the Financial Times on this, why not add to the zillion words already written on this comparison.

Both are financial centres; both are dynamic and vibrant city states. They are the usual two choices for any company’s Asian headquarters. As a financial centre, after London and New York, Hong Kong is ranked third; Singapore fourth. They are wonderfully connected to the rest of the world. HKIA and Changi frequently trade places as the best airport in the world. They are two of the biggest seaports. Both are ex British colonies and truly international. Great places to live in. At a superficial glance, they seem to be clones of each other.

So what are the differences ?

Hong Kong is obviously numero uno for China. Singapore is a much more comfortable location for India. The standard of English is much better in Singapore than in Hong Kong – there are parts of Hong Kong where you could be totally lost without Cantonese. Hong Kong is much more polluted than Singapore, a consequence of being just a stone’s throw from the Guangdong province in China which is the factory to the world. There are a myriad of such differences obviously, but there are three main differences that might have a bearing on business, I believe.

Firstly the rentals in Hong Kong are three times more expensive than Singapore. Whether residential or office. Tiny cubby holes as homes in Hong Kong are legendary, Property prices in Hong Kong are simply crazy. Not that they are not crazy in Singapore, but in Hong Kong they are crazy crazy. It makes doing business in Hong Kong prohibitively expensive, unless you are Goldman Sachs !

Secondly its much more difficult to get work permits and immigrant visas into Hong Kong than into Singapore. This simple fact makes it much more difficult to get a multinational team into Hong Kong – its much much easier to do so in Singapore. But I love the fact that Indians don't need a visa at all for business travel to Hong Kong.

Surprisingly Hong Kong is a lot freer than Singapore. Despite being a part of China, albeit a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong enjoys a free press and all the trappings of a vigorous democratic society. Singapore is free too, but you just have to read the Straits Times versus the South China Morning Post to understand what I am talking about. Singapore is a nanny state; period. Hong Kong, despite being on the edge of the biggest nanny state of them all, is itself not a nanny – she’s actually a curvaceous Suzy Wong ! And you have to live in a nanny state to appreciate the benefit of escaping from her clutches.

Where would I go ?? Well, I’ve been to both many more times than I would care to count. Actually I would rather not go to either of them. Warts and all, the choice is really between Shanghai and Bangalore. There in lies the dilemma for both Hong Kong and Singapore. They are the past. The future belongs to the dragon and the elephant. If only these two giants would care to put on a little makeup, dress up a bit and perhaps exhibit a few more curves …….