Is Taiwan’s Freedom Better than Singapore’s ‘Caged Canaries’ and Hong Kong’s ‘Lost Soul’?

by Justin Hugo / April 17, 2017 / The News Lens

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) recent remarks about countries south of Taiwan at the 30th anniversary of local magazine The Journalist ruffled some feathers. His comment that Hong Kong “doesn’t even have a soul that is free” drew a rebuttal from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.

“Today’s Hong Kong is tomorrow’s Taiwan,” Wong said. “Even though our histories and systems are different, when it comes to the China factor, it is necessary for Hongkongers and Taiwanese to join hands.”

However, Ko’s remarks about Singaporeans being “caged canaries” largely went unchallenged. It did not evoke a response from any of Singapore’s political leaders or civil society, perhaps a reflection of the subdued behavior that has evolved in the island state.

Indeed when pressed further on his remarks, Ko said that he had mentioned something along similar lines in the face of a senior Singaporean official when he previously visited Singapore. He also said that he had even once thought of moving to Singapore but gave up on that idea when he realized after visiting that Singapore is not what he had imagined it to be.

This is an about turn from Ko.

Prior to winning the Taipei mayoral election in 2014, Ko told Singapore’s Straits Times that, “Singapore is a very good model for Taiwan,” and that he hoped to learn from Singapore. Speaking to Foreign Policy after winning the election, he even made the remark that, “For the world’s four Chinese-speaking regions — Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China — the longer the colonization, the more advanced a place is.”

He added: “Singapore is better than Hong Kong; Hong Kong is better than Taiwan; Taiwan is better than the mainland.”

Since then, however, Ko seemed to have been schooled on Singapore’s “advancement” and has spoken up against the island nation several times. It took him six months to realize this. When he had initially set the goal to overtake Singapore within eight years, he has since decided that Taipei should not learn from Singapore because Taiwan has embarked on a “democratic path” and should not go down the road of Singapore.

Perhaps a contradiction right from the start, Ko had campaigned on a platform of “budget transparency” while Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said to The Telegraph that he “does not believe transparency is everything” when talking about the management of the country’s two sovereign wealth funds for which Lee is the chairman of one and his wife Ho Ching the CEO of the other.

By some metrics, Ko’s allusion of Singaporeans as canaries living in cages was describing a situation that is commonplace knowledge among some international observers of Singapore. Singapore is ranked at a low 70th as a flawed democracy by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index. Taiwan is 33rd. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 report ranks Singapore even lower at 126th as partly free. Taiwan is 37th. Singapore’s press freedom ranking – a measure of democracy – is also ranked 154th by Reporters Without Borders in 2016 which is its lowest ever ranking. Singapore ranks just four spots above Iraq and is even lower than Russia. Taiwan ranks 51st which is also the reason why Reporters Without Borders has recently decided to open its Asia bureau in Taipei.

“The choice of Taiwan was made […] also considering its status of being the freest place in Asia in our annual Press Freedom Index ranking,” the agency said.

High GDP, but….

At the same time, many observers also praise Singapore’s economic achievements – its high GDP per capita, they say is an exemplification of the enviable lives its citizens must be enjoying. But probe a bit deeper and the stark contrast in livelihoods among Singaporeans in the island state puts paid to the question of Singapore’s success.

Despite Singapore’s seemingly illustrious growth – its GDP per capita after converting for purchasing power parity is twice as high as Japan and South Korea – 8 percent of Singaporeans still earn below S$1,000 (US$715) last year. On the contrary, Taiwan’s minimum wage in 2017 is NT$21,009 (US$690), Hong Kong’s minimum wage would be HK$7,176 (US$920) from May this year, and South Korea’s minimum wage is 1.35 million won (US$1,190), quite mind-boggling when you consider how Singapore has been ranked by The Economist as the most expensive city in the world for the fourth year in a row and where Taiwan ranks a far 55th, but where the citizens in the other Asian Tigers can even earn higher wages than their Singaporean counterparts. Read more…

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