Talent-hungry Hong Kong can drop the hard sell and learn from Singapore

Hong Kong’s financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po recently said the city had “competitive advantages” over Singapore in the global talent race. While he made some good points – for example, about the diversity of Hong Kong’s natural landscape – it’s very debatable whether the city fares better in terms of “freedom”.

Concern about the latter, together with high housing prices, was probably one reason many left the city. If housing in Hong Kong were cheaper than in Singapore, that would be a real competitive advantage. But that is not the case at the moment. Chan also cited Hong Kong’s strong education system as an advantage when many see Singapore’s as performing better.

These constant, one-sided comparisons with Singapore expose Hong Kong’s insecurities and make the city look more like a hard sell when it should focus on learning from Singapore’s success in attracting global talent and diversifying its economy.

For a start, the requirements of Hong Kong’s Top Talent Pass Scheme do not seem as holistic as Singapore’s Overseas Networks and Expertise (ONE) Pass. Anyone earning the HK$2.5 million (US$319,953) a year needed to qualify for Hong Kong’s scheme could realistically enjoy a much more comfortable life in most top Asian and European cities than in Hong Kong – the world’s most expensive city for expatriates – unless perhaps their income is significantly higher.

Hong Kong’s scheme also allows graduates, but only from the world’s top 100 universities. Singapore’s One Pass, however, does not require a university degree and offers a case-by-case approach for applicants who do not meet the income requirement of S$30,000 a month, roughly HK$2 million a year. As a young university dropout, Bill Gates would not have qualified for Hong Kong’s talent scheme today – by the time he could, he would have had many other options.

Pedestrians in Central, Hong Kong, on February 20. The government introduced the Top Talent Pass Scheme in December 2022 to lure more skilled professionals to the city. Photo: May Tse

Hong Kong’s yardstick of income and academic achievement helps gauge capability and success but is hardly effective in helping find the most motivated and skilful global talent.

In terms of settling down, a Singapore passport is more powerful and easier to obtain than a Hong Kong passport. China’s complicated nationality law can make getting a Hong Kong passport challenging even for people born in the city, such as those from ethnic minority communities.

Having just celebrated the 27th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, Hong Kong could perhaps consider addressing the legal ambiguities and hurdles that make it hard for residents who are not of Chinese descent to become fully fledged Chinese nationals. While the government has recently announced a five-year permit for non-Chinese permanent residents of Hong Kong to travel to and from the mainland, the benefits are not the same as those enjoyed by people holding a home return permit.



Indians born and bred in Hong Kong explain why the city will always be home

Indians born and bred in Hong Kong explain why the city will always be home

There is no doubt Hong Kong is king when it comes to attracting mainland talent. But if it is serious about also attracting Southeast Asians to diversify its talent pool, as labour secretary Chris Sun Yuk-han says, it should build a deeper relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by supporting more exchange programmes between young Hongkongers and their peers in the region. Simply relying on press campaigns to explain its visa schemes is not enough.

Singapore has invested considerably in youth leadership programmes with other Asean member countries. As an alumnus of the Singapore-funded Asean Youth Fellowship and the Temasek Foundation-Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Southeast Asia Next-Gen Leaders Programme, I have experienced first-hand how such initiatives can advance collaboration and understanding between the region’s leaders of tomorrow, which can translate into business opportunities.

Additionally, Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute works with prominent Malaysian intellectuals through its Malaysia Studies programme, which encourages a thorough understanding of Malaysia and helps Singapore attract talent from its neighbour.

Hong Kong may need to take a similar approach with Asean members, through greater academic collaboration with Southeast Asian think tanks. Strengthening City University of Hong Kong’s Southeast Asia Research Centre would be helpful. Insights from organisations like the Hong Kong- and Kuala Lumpur-based Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT) could also help Hong Kong deepen its understanding of the Asean region.



Hong Kong leader John Lee vows deeper ties with Asean as gateway to mainland China

Hong Kong leader John Lee vows deeper ties with Asean as gateway to mainland China

Given that even Taiwan has started running youth exchange programmes that include Southeast Asians, under its New Southbound Policy, Hong Kong has no time to waste. Looking at global impact, it would be even more effective if Hong Kong could secure a World Economic Forum centre in the city or host WEF events, for example.

Hong Kong needs to think outside the box if it wishes to be the ultimate start-up capital for its region, much like London and Singapore are. The tech companies that have departed Hong Kong for Singapore will not return any time soon if Hong Kong keeps focusing on complementing Shenzhen’s innovative start-up scene without propping up its own.

To that end, Hong Kong could consider introducing a visa for “digital nomads”, which Thailand has done and Taiwan is thinking of doing, to attract global talent that can revitalise the local economy, foster innovation and create business opportunities.

Hong Kong’s advantage as a superconnector between the mainland and the world will become less relevant as China introduces more direct and higher-level opening-up measures. This is already happening – CEO Elon Musk did not need to go through Hong Kong to set up Tesla’s Gigafactory on the mainland; he dealt directly with the Shanghai government. Many more such examples may follow.

Alarm bells should be sounding for Hong Kong. The city must have a strong and coherent strategy to achieve a more diverse workforce and market opportunities that can ensure its continued prosperity.

Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of social enterprise Crowdsukan



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