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Not what it was used to be

HKIA isn't what it used to be in the old days.

No crowds. Only a handful of shops open. Lounges are dead.

HKIA used to be a humdrum of travelers, both business and leisure. I used to look forward to the lounges (the Cathay ones especially) as they usually served free flow warm food, drinks, snacks, etc.

The Pier at HKIA was a favourite go-to for its refreshing hot showers and Aesop scented shampoo and body wash. After that, I would settle into a bowl of hot wanton noodles from the noodle bar, extra serving of chilli, paired with either champagne or a can of Asahi. At times I would have someone from the dessert counter give me a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, then head over to the coffee bar and ask for a double shot espresso and pour it over to make an affogato.

Then I would either get to work on my laptop at the bar area or just get some shut-eye on the couch. I could spend an entire day in transit at HKIA - and people would think I am crazy. Occasionally, I would even travel out of the airport into the city to meet with friends. Macau was also accessible straight from HKIA via a one-hour or so ferry ride.

This was the Hong Kong that I was familiar with, at least from the perspective of an airport commuter.

So you can understand why I was slightly sad and somewhat disappointed when I saw the nearly empty aisles along the departure gates at HK airport. Aside from the crowd, nothing much about the facade has changed except for some additional seating areas with charging points.

These installations beside the travellator are new

The city struggles having to deal with conforming to mainland policies (which is totally understandable), but at the same time, facing pressure to open up like the rest of the world, especially Singapore, its closest competitor. It is not an easy task. Every month, business and investor confidence in the city is diminishing.

Whether it relates to the perceived lack of freedom, uncertainty around propaganda from Beijing or the draw of spacious living, companies can always find a reason to jettison Hong Kong for Singapore.

It is odd for me, speaking as a Singaporean but I actually am rooting for Hong Kong, in a healthy competitive way.

Hong Kong is probably the last frontier for China's position as an international gateway. Despite its current sovereign ownership, it's colonial legacy and history is what gives Hong Kong its uniqueness - the ability to harness the vast potential of the Chinese market and combine this with the best (or widely accepted) practices of the West. And if you think about it, this is actually very similar to Singapore.

Singapore surely has Southeast Asia as its playground, but Southeast Asia as a market dims in size significantly to China. Its diversity of language and cultures, unlike China, makes it more difficult to penetrate and navigate the ground. As big as China is, its socialist-driven economy incorporating standardization and uniformity is probably one of its biggest selling points. For example, you could hire a Chinese-speaking person, parachute him/her anywhere in China, and can be assured that he/she will be able to navigate the ground with relative ease.

But you can't do the same with Southeast Asia. To master the Indonesian market you need a native from Indonesia who understands not only the language but the customs. Likewise for Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand.

The ASEAN bloc as a whole works well together because we collectively thrive on regional common interests.

But to succeed in each market independently, we need to dedicate resources specific to each country. Besides, to win in Southeast Asia, you can't afford to focus just on one country. Even the biggest and most successful startups in the region have expanded their footprint beyond their home country. After Indonesia, GoTo has set its sights on Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Despite making a name of itself in Malaysia, Grab has expanded into other key markets such as Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Yet, even as successful as these startups go, Southeast Asia as a region still falls behind significantly in size to China. Over one billion people in China over the last few decades have been reading more, spending more, investing more, and consuming more. And in recent years, the flurry of venture capital and private equity money into Southeast Asia, lifting overall valuations, has just made it increasingly difficult to find a rich exit in a crowded market.

Everyone is waiting eagerly for COVID restrictions in China to open up and for trade flows to resume. Guess which city will be the biggest beneficiary of that? It is perhaps simply just all a matter of time.

Make Hong Kong great again.


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