But not every returnee story progresses so smoothly. Ming (who does not want to disclose his identity) is also a second generation overseas Hongkonger. He came to Hong Kong to look for work in 2008 but left because he failed to find a permanent job here, while the employment prospects in Singapore were better. He is now working there as an investment adviser.
Ming says he chose Singapore partly because of his inability to speak fluent Mandarin. “Hong Kong’s business is more connected to the Mainland, while Singapore puts less emphasis on this language and is more willing to accept foreign workers,” he explains.
He is also concerned about the Mainland’s growing reach in Hong Kong and fears the Chinese government will further squeeze Hong Kong’s freedom of speech in the future, unsettling the economy, “We all know that Singapore is all controlled by the government, but China is trying to influence Hong Kong that, in the long term, it affects the way the economy has been operating,” he says.
Another reason Ming wants to stay in Singapore is that it has a better living environment than Hong Kong, especially when it comes to housing. The city-state has a home ownership ratio of over 90 per cent, with the majority of people living in either rental or self-owned subsidised flats. While many Hongkongers find even the tiniest apartments out of their reach financially, the per capita average living space in Singapore is around 270 sq. ft., more than double that of Hong Kong.
With foreigners making up 38 per cent of the total labour force, Singapore now has one of the world’s largest foreign workforces. Many of them are highly educated, with some 200,000 degree holders entering Singapore since 2007.
Paul Yip Siu-fai, professor of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, says Hong Kong also needs to import labour from overseas to improve the overall quality of the workforce, especially as many immigrants from the Mainland are not that competitive in the labour market. “We do need high-quality migrants coming here to offset the people who have left Hong Kong,” Yip says.
As for how many returnees the government can hope to attract, it is difficult to say. For starters, there are no figures on how many potential returnees there are. The Security Bureau estimates some 840,000 residents emigrated in the 1980s during the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future. Of these, about 90 per cent moved to the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK.
Based on this, Yip suggests there could be some 50,000-60,000 second generation emigrants aged 18-40 who are eligible to apply. The scheme would be very successful if it could attract 20 per cent of these people to Hong Kong.
Professor Raymond So Wai-man, Dean of the School of Business in Hang Seng Management College, believes the government has neither targeted a specific type of talent nor singled out a direction in which the economy should develop. He says the government wants to attract as much talent as possible in the hope that “something will turn up”.
Still, So says Hong Kong does have advantages compared with Singapore, such as a free flow of information and higher economic freedom. He thinks Hong Kong is a better place to develop a personal career. With many niche markets as yet undeveloped, Hong Kong has much potential to advance and diversify its economy, “If you want to develop your career, you want to do a lot of crazy stuff, Hong Kong still has the cutting edge,” he says.