How Hong Kong and Singapore Went from Fishing Villages to Urban Lodestars

I’m writing this on a flight from Hong Kong where news has just broken that the father of the Singaporean city-state Lee Kuan Yew has passed away. On the airplane TV, BBC shows a 1993 interview with him, sharing his thoughts on the country’s foundation. I didn’t catch all the quotes word-for-word, but to paraphrase, he noted that at the time of its independence, Singapore was left on its own, and had to quickly figure out how it could be useful to the world and stand on its own. If not, the city could otherwise support no more than, “... 150 fishermen in its natural state”, he noted somberly.

Today, Singapore has an outsized presence in trade and finance, with a multicultural population of three million, compared to 150 pirates and fishermen who Sir Thomas Raffles found there upon arrival in 1819. Similarly, Hong Kong (not quite a city-state, but close to it in practice) went from being a sleepy fishing village to now having the 15th highest GDP per capita (PPP). And both are the envy of urban and transport planners worldwide, with well-functioning transit systems plying high-density multi-use corridors.

Neither one is of course really a “city-state” in the old Venetian sense, but they stand as powerful symbols to both older cities struggling to reinvent themselves post-manufacturing as well as countries building new cities from scratch. If a sleepy fishing village can turn into a prosperous nation (much like Iceland went from being a primarily cod-fishing entity of about 143,000 inhabitants in 1950 to a diversified and developed nation today), what can others learn from Singapore and Hong Kong?

Singapore Gardens by the Bay, the result of an urban planning project to turn unused land into open walkable space, part of Singapore's garden tradition. Image credit: Kathleen Sullivan.

Before we proceed, I have to add the requisite caution on needing to take local context into account. What worked in Singapore and Hong Kong doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere, of course. For one, they have some fairly unique relationships to their neighbors (Malaysia and China respectively), as well as very strategic maritime locations. But accepting for differing cultural and historical contexts, what can Singapore and Hong Kong teach other cities, rather than countries?

As an example, let’s consider foreign talent. Ask any expat considering a move to the region, and they’ll tell you it’s often a decision between the two. Singapore is more of a tidy, well-ordered place, where Hong Kong has a more of a vibrant feel with an incredible food scene. Then again, it’s a world where diversity thrives, so why choose?

Hong Kong in the day, showing a mix of gardens, transport, and high-density buildings. Image credit: Tali Trigg.

However, it’s not really about choosing between the two, it’s that the two are considered so attractive in the first place; something the two have achieved through a holistic and integrated focus on urban and transport planning. In fact, Hong Kong’s transit agency (MTR) is now world famous and operates transit systems elsewhere, from Melbourne to Stockholm. And in Singapore, they’ve managed to turn their national airline and airport into a showcase of the country’s qualities, with Singapore Airlines being voted the number one airline on the planet, and the same accolade going towards its home airport (Changi). So does it come down to infrastructure alone?

Maybe. Yet, while there is no one thing the two “city-states” have achieved, it’s rather how they’ve turned their strategic locations into their advantage, becoming first-rate maritime and financial hubs thanks to excellent underlying infrastructure and a clear legal framework, making it easy to do business. To achieve all this, especially in the service sector, these two places needed to attract the relevant talent by building the necessary infrastructure, all with an eye towards preserving some of the original green spaces.

This was especially important in places where space is at an incredible premium. The result? Lots of building upward, with very good density, and thus excellent utilization of public transit networks. All in all, it makes for a good start, but are we missing something as an explainer?

In a recent Forecast magazine article (an offshoot of globalist Monocle magazine), the former and current capitals of Kazakhstan were compared, mostly unfavorably to the new capital, for lacking a “soul”. While Forecast bemoans the usage of such simplistic description, I wonder if there isn't something to it.

Similarly, in the same magazine, the United Arab Emirates’ eco-city-from-scratch (Masdar City) is described as a sluggish project that might well turn out to be a white elephant, despite the earnest intentions of the foreign architects given free reigns and ample pay. By next 2016, the goals were to house 50,000 full-time residents. Currently, only about 300 students live there. Perhaps they really are missing that “soul” or a je ne sais quoi?

As these new cities take shape, and older ones reinvent themselves (to varying degrees of success), Singapore and Hong Kong teach us that an underlying integrated land-use and transport planning will serve cities well – they not only improve the lives of those there, but also increase their competitiveness in attracting a high-value pool of foreign talent.