HONG KONG – When Daniel Chow left Singapore for a job in Hong Kong in 2020, he expected his wife and two young sons to join him once the pandemic subsided and the Chinese territory moved away from its “zero Covid” strategy.
Now, Chow has returned to Singapore after two years of frustration, pointing to the ongoing restrictions on life in Hong Kong even as the rest of the world opens up.
“We decided that my family will not move to Hong Kong,” said Chow, 43, who works in the securities services industry. “Schools keep shutting down and the city has strict restrictions on movement. Children are the ones who have suffered the most.”
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For most of the pandemic, Hong Kong and Singapore — both densely populated Asian financial centers with residents from around the world — kept virus cases and deaths to a minimum with border closures, strict quarantine requirements, and extensive testing and contact tracing.
But while Singapore has steadily moved towards reopening in recent months, Hong Kong remains mired in restrictions that critics say are costing business and talent, with Singapore a key beneficiary.
Singapore was one of the first countries in Asia to open its borders to the world. The city has seen an increase in travel in recent weeks as it scrapped mandatory quarantine, pre-departure testing for vaccinated people and a mask mandate for outdoors. The city of more than 5 million people is reporting about 6,000 cases a day on average.
Hong Kong has also scrambled to ease restrictions, reopen the border to non-residents, resume in-person classes and allow bars and other businesses to resume operations for the first time since January.
However, passengers arriving from overseas are still required to quarantine in a hotel for seven days at their own expense – a burden for frequent travelers like Chow, who had returned to Singapore to see his family.
“That was a really important factor for me in leaving Hong Kong and an even bigger factor compared to what brought me there in the first place, which is a lot of career opportunities,” he said.
Hong Kong has maintained its tough policy aimed at reopening its border with mainland China, which is following a similar “zero Covid” approach. However, with the mainland still recovering from its worst outbreak since the pandemic began, that looks unlikely anytime soon, holding back Hong Kong’s reopening to the rest of the world as well.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said last month that hotel quarantine and testing requirements on arrival were “very unlikely” before stepping down at the end of June, citing the risk of new variants. The city of 7.4 million is reporting about 200 to 300 virus cases a day.
Lam’s successor, John Lee, said reopening to mainland China and the rest of the world is one of his priorities. But the city’s business community has grown increasingly impatient, with lobby groups urging officials to lift the quarantine requirement or at least allow travelers to quarantine at home.
“The resumption of travel is of paramount importance, be it to the mainland or to overseas,” Betty Yuen, the new chair of Hong Kong’s General Chamber of Commerce, told local broadcaster TVB last month. “Our strict restrictions have made us almost like a secluded island.”
The travel restrictions have also wreaked havoc on flight schedules to and from Hong Kong, which once had one of the busiest airports in the world. Just 126,000 passengers passed through Hong Kong International Airport in April, compared to 6.5 million in April 2019.
Willie Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, told reporters in Singapore last month that it would take years for Hong Kong to recover as a global aviation hub.
“This opportunity will go to other airports in the region,” he said. “Singapore will definitely benefit from that, I think.”
Singapore’s pandemic restrictions have also taken a toll on the population, with some foreign residents citing it as one of their reasons for leaving. But the government has emphasized the importance of reopening the economy throughout the pandemic, said Teo Yik Ying, professor and dean of the School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.
“Comparatively, I think it wasn’t easy for the Hong Kong government to make a unilateral decision,” he said, as its pandemic policy is linked to that of mainland China.
The Singapore government has also been commended for its communication with the public during the pandemic, which Ying said has inspired confidence.
That level of trust is lacking in Hong Kong, where anti-government protests in 2019 were followed by a crackdown on dissent. During the pandemic, the government has been criticized for inconsistent messaging and reactive measures.
Talk of leaving Hong Kong peaked this spring as the city experienced its worst outbreak of the pandemic. Rumors of a full lockdown, and in particular fears that quarantine measures will separate children from their parents, prompted thousands to leave, at least temporarily.
Singapore is a natural alternative, especially for financial service providers. But there are also obstacles to moving there, causing some Hong Kong businesses and families to reconsider their plans.
The city recently tightened its work visa requirements for foreigners amid fears they would take jobs away from Singaporeans.
“Everyone here welcomes expatriates and foreign companies to Singapore, but the key is that they add value to the local economy and to local people,” said Walter Theseira, associate professor of economics at Singapore University of Social’s School of Business Sciences.
Property prices in Singapore were already rising before the influx from Hong Kong, which has also led to an increase in demand for places in private schools.
“It would be a problem for families trying to move here because I’ve heard people can’t get places in schools,” Theseira said.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the city welcomes existing competition from Hong Kong, which he says makes “a vibrant, dynamic region”.
“We’re happy to welcome them, but actually we’d be even happier if they were happy to stay in Hong Kong,” he told the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board in April.
Ying hopes Hong Kong will soon open up to the rest of the world.
“Hong Kong is not only important for itself or for China, but also strategic as an economic and transportation hub for this part of the world,” he said. “When Hong Kong’s economy suffers, the entire region suffers as well. So it is to everyone’s advantage that Hong Kong can regain its status as a business hub in Asia.”