In the past 2 months, I’ve had the pleasure of calling two different cities home. A chance to do some free lance work in Hong Kong took me there for the first time ever. In the past, I had no inclination to ever go there, as I believed the hype that HK was dirty, smelly, polluted and expensive. But on the prodding of my good friend and publishing partner Alvin Lim, I took the leap and checked it out. What a wonderful discovery!

My first impression upon first entering HK was of Singapore. I found HK to be dynamic, organic, alive with energy and commerce, and very, very vibrant. But that wasn’t my first thought. First thought was that “me thinks Singapore tries too hard” to be a world class city.

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While HK is, Singapore wants to be, but overall a world class city is about more than having a collection of buildings. It is something that permeates the souls, the software to the hardware you might say. As Lao Tse Tsing wrote in the Art of War, “govern a great nation like you would cook a fish… don’t overdo it.”

During my first couple days in HK, of course the newness of the environs was influencing me, yet there were many of the delights that also were undiscovered at that stage. I set out to write a comparison of the two cities, how each was better than the other. But how to measure these two former English colonies? By cold data like economics, or the vibrancy of artistic endeavours and freedom of expression? Environmentally or linguistically? I started by making a list.

In Singapore, there is Wireless@SG, free internet in most public places, while in HK, you have to pay, a minimum of S$4 a day. That was the only advantage in Singapore’s column for some time.

Hong Kong’s list was notably longer; a newspaper you could actually read without wincing, metro train service which runs til 1am, taxi’s affordable and always available, shopping malls without the same outlets in each of them, restaurants thriving with business, nightclubs alive with people having a genuinely good time, not just lured there because some deep pocket investor is giving away product below cost just to lure crowds in (good bye fake Mos), drinks priced so you won’t feel put out everytime you go out on the town, and breakfast items at McDonald’s 24 hours a day.

And these are just things on the street level. There is a real vitality in business, entrepreneurship is visible everywhere, even the arts and theatre groups live off their earnings. There is a vibrant media scene, and magazine advertising works because the articles are interesting enough to read and therefore the ads work, so people pay what an ad is worth, because it works, not just because they need to look like they’re advertising.

These things might seem superficial, but they really do make a difference. I actually found HK to be a bit cheaper and better for value than my dear Singapore. Sure, Singapore has more green and open spaces and a politer population, and there is a greater selection of films in the cinema. But one thing that sets Singapore apart is the sense of community, knowing that help is not far away, from strangers, friends and the civil defenses. Hopefully with time, and after a transition, Singapore too will have even better software than that other British colony.