The Twin Sisters of Trajectory | The Early Journeys of Singapore and Hong Kong

The most abundant mines, either of the precious metals or of the precious stones, could add little to the wealth of the world.

The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

I can scarcely imagine the life of a miner anymore than I can imagine what it must feel like to make love to a different woman every night. Perhaps it’s exciting initially; looking for that certain something that habitually eludes you. But once the elusive becomes common, its value plummets. This is why one-night stands are largely lousy and irritatingly immemorable.

It is the same reason why precious metals, which were once a symbol of enduring value; are now nothing but shilling and spare change that we usually dread having to carry in our pockets and purses. Even the popularity of paper currency is slowly diminishing as our modern concept of money morphs into an intangible figure we only ever see on an app or an online bank statement.

In the late 1700s, Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher pointed out a major flaw in the emphasis on precious metals as a store of value. Since these metals derive their value from their scarcity, the very act of mining more decreases their value in the long run, even though a temporarily high demand may disguise this fact.

So here’s where I see a correlation between a one-night stand and mining. A temporarily high demand is disguising the fact that I am, in essence, investing my energy, my genes and also my physical resources (i.e. my body), into something (and quite possibly someone) whose value will depreciate very quickly. Instead of investing my resources and energy in an individual and in an arrangement that will increase in value over time, I have done the opposite.

How foolish we must be to partake in such lousy, fleeting and momentary pleasures!

On the flip side, however, if there’s only one woman for me–and that’s who and what I need to focus my precious energy on–and if she’s the only woman I’ll ever get the chance to be with; it is in my vested interest to ensure that she is well, that I am well and that we are well together. It is also in my vested interest to ensure that the children we create prosper, flourish and… venture forth.

Twin Cities

Singapore and Hong Kong are often described as sister cities. They channel billions of dollars of investment inwards into their respective cities and around the region. They’re both former British colonies with no natural resources–except their harbour. But anyone who has a sibling knows that you can have the same set of parents but wind up as completely different people–either because of the life path you choose or the way you naturally develop over time.

It has always been my belief that before any nation can tackle the terrain of politics (and political ideals), a nation must first focus on the fundamentals that underpin economic development. In the case of Singapore, industrial development between the 1970s and 80s focused on foreign investment, which is believed to have created a higher standard of living as well as allowed ‘the little red dot’ to establish an influential position in the global marketplace that is unusual for a small island nation.

On the other hand, one of the unique features of Hong Kong’s industrial development is that almost all of its enterprises have started with the entrepreneur’s own capital. The barriers of entry, which remained low, encouraged the proliferation of small, specialised enterprises–a majority of which employ fewer than 20 workers. One of the main differences between these two twin sister cities is that in Singapore, the government had a strong influence on the direction of industrial development. In Hong Kong, it was the entrepreneur.

No system is perfect. When the relationships that underpin wealth creation change, so must the trajectory of economic development. Wealth moves in cycles. A system that is highly profitable today can–and will–eventually decline. This is not mere cynicism, but a pattern that has repeated itself countless times over the course of human history.

In an increasingly interdependent digitalised economy, the ability to mobilise ones resources is of critical importance. The real question is not–why is one country prospering and another country stagnating–but rather, how do different countries–and by extension businesses–pursue the path of economic stability in a way that is congruent with their circumstances and timing.

During the colonial era, countries with rich natural resources and large geographical areas prevailed during what can arguably be described as the race for resources. Back in the day, if you had land (preferably with resources on it or even in it), you were rich. But this concept of wealth no longer holds in modern society. Cities like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have adapted and thrived in the face of resource scarcity, have casted a shadow on the old world ideal of a land-owning ruling class.

One thing I believe is that nothing is inherently good or bad. It is how we channel it, use it and utilise it. For instance, a large population shapes both demand and supply–creating both a market and efficiency via economies of scale. On the flip side, a large population has considerably higher infrastructure needs that cannot be fulfilled by the entrepreneur alone and requires large amounts of government planning and expenditure.

Much like siblings, that get needlessly compared to each other ad nauseam, there are enough statistics and pundits out there comparing the two cities and passing judgment on who is doing better and why.

To me, the real similarity between Singapore and Hong Kong stems from the circumstances that underpinned their development, and not how their respective economies developed post-independence. The key takeaway from the experiences of Singapore and Hong Kong–and the development of urban centres that are resource poor–is that no one needs to kowtow to anyone and nor does anyone have to allow what is perceived as a ‘weakness’ to cripple one’s economic growth.

Rather, any human, business, city or nation can act to shape their future and choose to thrive in the face of startling scarcity to create abundance for generations to come.

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