The end of this week sees a heavyweight boxing reunification title match between David Haye, the British holder of one title and Wladimir Klitschko the Ukrainian holder of two titles. An event that has been long anticipated, and will see plenty of action, I have no doubt.
So, why the reference to boxing? In a somewhat lower-key event that has nevertheless been building up into something more aggressive recently, I have been keeping an eye on the rivalry that undoubtedly exists between Hong Kong and Singapore. A sort of virtual boxing contest where perhaps the smaller contender has been showing signs of punching above its weight.
I thought about it in particular when I noticed a revival of interest in a Blog I wrote just over two years ago on the debate about Hong Kong vs Shanghai. I had no idea why this should again be on the mind of readers, unless it was part of the regular round of paranoia on the subject - usually for the less confident people of Hong Kong. The blog concluded then that Hong Kong, if it stayed focused, flexible and positive would remain of significant global importance, but needed to keep Shanghai in its sights.
On reflection, I then realised that I had become much more focused on the positioning of Singapore in recent months, after the election, because here is an economy and a political structure in transition - and it's making waves. I thought a quick look at the situation - as usual from my own perspective - was warranted.
Before I get started, I should say I am familiar with the old arguments about Singapore being more focused, smaller, and able to be more flexible than Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong has its hands tied and should not compete in the same manner with Singapore. I am sorry to say that on the latter part I disagree. We do not have to have our hands tied, and continuously worry about the blanket opposition that seems to typify debates in a negative Legco.
I should also say, having said it before, that despite the frustrations everyone feels occasionally, Hong Kong is my home. I enjoy being here. I want us to do well domestically and to continue working on areas of social reform, but without giving everything away for nothing in return. But our prosperity also relies on our performance internationally and as a global business centre. Thus I am not going to throw in the towel just because we are looking more and more as if we have lost our way, but we have to wake up. In another more recent blog, in September last year, I spoke of Hong Kong's attitude towards the present and the future as giving me some cause for concern. That continues to be the case, but I digress.
Today I am hearing Singapore's name being mentioned a little too often for Hong Kong's own good.
In the years before I retired, I was invited on a number of occasions to lunches in Hong Kong hosted by some very senior officials from Singapore. Lunches that were attended by a small number of Hong Kong businessmen who were variously flattered for their business acumen (in fairness, justifiably in many cases), and then asked to share the secrets of their success - which they did willingly. It seems that after the information had been harvested, those officials would return to Singapore and sift through the commentary provided to see if there was anything that might be of value to Singapore. Ideas they could use, or adapt to suit their own purposes. Whether it was a successful exercise or not is hard to say today - but the real point was, they were prepared to seek out ideas and didn't mind where they came from.
I remarked at the time that I could not see any Hong Kong official seeing the need to do the same sort of thing in Singapore, as we seemed to believe we had all the answers anyway.
Fast forward to today, and what are we hearing?
I am talking about what I hear from people I speak to with practical experience. I am all too familiar with the statistics that pop out from Government to indicate how well Hong Kong is doing in attracting new offices and headquarters. No, I am hearing from people trying to employ quality internationally minded linguistically competent staff, trying to find school places in Hong Kong, and trying to find a general quality of life that is attractive. From people who are looking at choices available - Singapore, Hong Kong or China direct. People who are looking at legal structures in which they would feel comfortable operating, looking at the rules and regulations in effect or their likely trend, and searching for incentives - real incentives.
In all of this searching, Hong Kong has of course one major attribute that Singapore just cannot replicate - and that is proximity to China. And a special relationship that, although perhaps strained at times, has certainly been favourable to Hong Kong. But for the rest?
Despite a few good days recently in Hong Kong where the skies have returned temporarily to the blues of some decades back, one cannot help but feel this is temporary. And if it is not - what has changed? I saw an argument that our recent good weather is a reflection of the fact that factories in China are not so active as previously and that therefore all our earlier pollution problems were due entirely to factories in China (operated mainly, by the way, by Hong Kong businesses). I don't think so, somehow.
Wind - of one sort or another - has always had an impact on our pollution levels!!
I was told the other day that an incoming executive from an established Hong Kong entity looking for a school place for his children in an ESF school had one of them at 120 on the waiting list! He chose Singapore instead. We are not going to gain, or even obtain credibility or talent if that continues to be the case. I understand that Harrow School's total registration in Hong Kong for new students was filled in less than an hour after opening. I have no independent verification if this is true, but it wouldn't surprise me.
And most compelling of all is perhaps Singapore's willingness to do "deals". In this, where Hong Kong may hold the moral high ground and be applauded by trying to ensure that everyone is treated as fairly as possible, it is nevertheless unlikely to win us new businesses.
In any business environment, you occasionally have to make special offers to attract new business. Does this disadvantage existing players in the market? - Yes, but then if you are attracting the right sort of business, the overall benefits could be higher - if you are efficient and competitive. And it is here that Singapore is currently winning out - tax concessions are significant when compared to Hong Kong. And the other benefits being offered would certainly match Hong Kong on the face of it. And if the reality is different - then we are not articulating our competitiveness sufficiently well.
If this is a heavyweight contest, then we are certainly facing an onslaught of jabs right now. If we don't protect ourselves by becoming the aggressor, then the body blows will start to take their toll, and we will be vulnerable to the killer punch.
Boxing matches usually have a result and although there may be a re-match, the loser is often at a disadvantage. If we are in the early rounds, we had better re-think our strategy as we move deeper into the fight, because we may be falling behind on points.
We need some inspired and inspiring leadership to start changing the characteristics of the fight, yet June 2012 for a change of trainer sounds a long way off.
But as they used to say, before it became politically incorrect to do so, may the best man (person) win!