THE FREQUENT FLYER
Our columnist on the factor that can make or break a country
1 JULY 1997 was a historical inflection point for the great city of Hong Kong. Everyone with any association with the city knew it, and many scampered when faced with the uncertainty brought on by the change from British to Chinese rule.
Twenty years later, Hong Kong’s pivot can be viewed in a rather different light: its talent pool has been enriched rather than eviscerated, it remains a beacon of international commerce and its rule of law, despite threats, is still a feature. The place isn’t perfect, but the change of governance has been at least a qualified success.
This anniversary got me thinking about other national inflection points of recent decades and what we can learn from them, given that the world appears to be facing plenty more: think Brexit, Trump’s divisiveness and the historic transition in Myanmar.
Two particularly instructive examples are Singapore and
Cuba. In 1959, the year both
Lee Kuan Yew and Fidel Castro assumed power, Cuba had a thriving tourism industry and abundant tobacco, sugar and coffee. It was a much wealthier nation than Singapore, which was a rather impoverished former colonial trading outpost. Fast-forward about 60 years and Singapore, one of the world’s great postwar success stories, boasts a per capita GDP more than eight times Cuba’s.
There are many explanations for this – not least the contrasts in leadership styles and economic models employed. But little is written about the role of the individual, about me and you. Cuba, repressive and suspicious, never provided its people with a chance to change or grow the nation. But Singapore and Hong Kong, despite their obvious democratic limitations, empowered the individual. Businesspeople of all hues have stuck around, been entrepreneurial, cared enough about their homes to invest in them, attracted foreigners to invest in them, employed people and built international brands and reputations. Much of this is also true in other successful country rebirth stories, including East Germany and even China.
For governments, the lesson is to trust in their people and indeed in other nations’ people. For us remarkably privileged souls, it is a call to arms in uncertain times. It’s easy to be short-term selfish, taking the easy route out (flee) or carrying on with what we’ve always done (stay in the same job, build nothing new). But this isn’t enough: we must stay, take risks, build, invest. If Brexit isn’t going to mark national decline, Brits must lobby for a high- quality relationship with the EU, build innovative businesses and create new trading relationships. Americans need to improve the lot of the working and lowermiddle classes through business growth and philanthropy. And all of us should find both selfish and altruistic reasons to spend time and invest in developing nations that may prove to be the Singapores and Hong Kongs of the future: take a look at Myanmar or Sri Lanka when you’re next thinking of a new business proposition.
I’d love to hear your perspectives. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org