Hong Kong Vs. Shanghai Vs. Singapore: Where Should You Be Based in Asia?

I live in Singapore, but I also love spending time in Hong Kong and Shanghai. My business is global, but my fastest growing market is China and Hong Kong. I have found that people I visit and know tend to love one city over the others.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong and then Shanghai, I met with several entrepreneurs, clients, partners and business associates who all expressed a preference for Hong Kong or Shanghai – even to the extent of never ever even considering Singapore.

To me, Singapore seems like the business natural hub of Asia. They, on the other hand, viewed Singapore is the way that I view KL or Jakarta: Nice to visit occasionally, but not live and work.

I also see Hong Kong and Shanghai in that context too: Great for business, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Everyone has a personal choice for business.

So which one should you choose? Let’s look at various factors that entrepreneurs should look at when deciding where to place their hub in Asia Pacific.

If you can’t get high speed internet in the largest commercial city in the largest country in the world, imagine what it’s like for people in other giant cities in China

Internet connection

As my business, Black Marketing - Enabling LinkedIn For you, is all about LinkedIn, myself and my team need to be using the internet constantly. Therefore, speed and reliability are key.

I was in Shanghai and Beijing for a week recently and what holds these two locations back for me are two things 1) the internet speed and 2) reliability.

Everyone I meet in Shanghai, for example, complains about the internet speed with or without VPN. The internet is the biggest thing that holds China back.

If you can’t get high speed internet in the largest commercial city in the largest country in the world, imagine what it’s like for people in other giant cities in China. It is the biggest factor against putting your business here.

There is only so much that you can use WeChat for. The internet is still essential for everything from research to email and communications. Without it and with it at such a slow rate your productivity and ability to do any kind of white collar job is effectively decreased.

Singapore has one of the fastest internet connections and speeds in the world, allegedly, according to research. Even in Singapore it’s not perfect. I have 4G and like most people who have 4G I still complain about the speed.

Nothing is ever perfect, but when you experience China and then Singapore, you appreciate Singapore’s speeds.

Hong Kong is somewhere in between. Not as slow as Shanghai, but not as fast as Singapore.

Singapore wins.

Censorship

When I was in Beijing, the Shangri-La, where I stayed, sent me a note with a list of all the internet sites I couldn’t log on to, as they were banned in China. They include Google, where we have our entire business on the cloud.

I took a photo of this and shared it on my China LinkedIn. Within seconds, it had vanished. My list of censored sites provided to me by my hotel had itself been censored!

I then, of course, switched on my VPN and shared it on my Singapore LinkedIn site. It was not only fine. It trended for a week and gained hundreds of comments and likes and helpful advice. Ironic. It then trended on the China version of LinkedIn anyway. Doubly ironic.

Of course, I know this happens in China. I always connect via VPN there, as most people do in China who want access to these banned sites. Either that, or there are actually hotels that have a VPN wall to enable all residents to use these censored sites.

(Most American brands, not the Asian ones like Shangri-La, unfortunately, which appears to operate an increased censorship strategy. If I turn on my Shangri-La wifi, my Gmail doesn’t work. Switch the wifi off, and bizarrely it does work).

Hong Kong has a more relaxed attitude towards employing foreigners and is therefore potentially more attractive to employers. There are restrictions, but these are not enforced like they are so enthusiastically in Singapore

Needing to use VPN all the time is a drag because the Chinese authorities have clearly got wise to this and have started blocking the VPNs too. I received non-stop complaints from people there that their VPN was being blocked for example.

Coupled with slow internet, it does make people think twice before being located there. But then if you’re not, you do risk missing out on the largest market in the world.

Of course, you can get Yahoo and Bing. But if you’re business is on Google and you love Google, then you need Google. And for those of you who like their social Westernized, you need Facebook and the like, which you can only get through VPN.

Singapore wins.

Talent

It’s notoriously hard to employ the best person in Singapore. Easy to employ a local or permanent resident, but expats have a hard time being employed under a Singaporean first policy.

It is somewhat ironic that Singapore is expanding its Central Business District. More and more commercial real estate is being built and Singapore is always offering international companies tax breaks and incentives to come here.

However, at the same time, Singapore is restricting who they can employ once they get here. One counters the other in a city where there is effectively full employment. You win on one side, but lose on the other.

Locals complain about expats having the jobs that they aspire to. But not everything can be equalized by force. Some things are actually based on experience, personality and characteristics.

The best person should always be employed, in my view. That person is not always the person with the MBA or university degree, as Singapore is obsessed by. For me, experience trumps qualifications, every time.

Hong Kong has a more relaxed attitude towards employing foreigners and is therefore potentially more attractive to employers. There are restrictions, but these are not enforced like they are so enthusiastically in Singapore.

Like in Singapore, you can also become a permanent resident in Hong Kong, based on time living there (seven years) – as opposed to political pressure and quotas as in Singapore. I have known millionaires who were declined PR status in Singapore and have subsequently moved to Hong Kong.

Shanghai is a mixture of the two other cities. Some people have told me it’s easy to get a permit. Others says that the bureaucracy is immense and prevents it.

Hong Kong wins.

Entrepreneurs’ organizations

All three locations have interesting entrepreneur organizations. But many have vested interests and are too local and inward looking. I find BNI (Business Network International) in Singapore a waste of time, for example. It’s full of local entrepreneurs, not international ones. The reverse is true in Hong Kong, however. 

But my experience with Entrepreneurs’ Organisation in Shanghai has been amazing. They have English speaking only and Chinese speaking versions, and that works well for both sides.

I have done many LinkedIn workshops and talks with Entrepreneurs’ Organisation chapters in Shanghai. They have been received engagingly and been fantastic experiences.

They might have started earlier with coworking in Hong Kong than Singapore, but Singapore learned about what entrepreneurs wanted faster and better

It appears in Singapore and Hong Kong that the EO “chapters” there are more for vested interests of local powerful families, as opposed to real entrepreneurs. Needless to say we haven’t created any clients from these chapters or joined them.

Shanghai wins.

Logistics

Setting up a company is easy in Singapore. You need only a local or PR to be a shareholder. Hong Kong is even easier. You don’t even need to be that or even be a resident to do so. Shanghai is a mixture of the two.

Singapore is easy to get around partly because of the size and partly because of the Uber/Grab/taxi system along with the MRT/bus network. Hong Kong’s MTR works well, but it’s trying to resist Uber to protect its vested taxi interests. Traffic is worse than in Singapore, the taxis dirtier and drivers are mostly Chinese speaking, compared with Singapore.

Shanghai is more of a challenge to get around. Even if you can find a taxi, it takes forever to get anywhere. Uber is coming in force because of this. Their MRT is ever expanding, but not yet complete like Singapore.

Airports: No contest. Singapore’s Changi airport thrashes both the other two based on every factor going. From the design/ambience to the queues, Singapore trumps the others.

Why do I turn up at HK or Shanghai airport and there are queues to check in, queues to go through security and queues to go through passport control, when Singapore doesn't have any of these?

Arrivals are also stress-free, quick and you feel you have arrived in a tranquil garden. This is the opposite in HK and Shanghai, where the design of the airport alone looks like it’s anti-customer and oppressive, not positive and enlightening as I always feel coming and going in Changi. Simply the world’s best airport.

Getting things done: Each city has its ups and downs, some more bureaucratic than others. I find Singapore less so, employment issues aside, that is.

Taxation: Each has very low and very competitive company taxes and no taxes on company dividends, which make all three attractive, especially compared with any Western country.

Singapore wins for me. It's a personal choice. Everyone is different.

Coworking

Since I started Black Marketing 2.5 years ago, I have always worked at Jonathan O’Byrne’s amazing coworking (the lack of hyphen is for you, Jonathan) space, Collective Works. Just last week we moved from his first place to his epic new space, which is designed stunningly by Larissa Murphy’s Contrast and is five times larger than his previous space.

It’s quite easily the best designed, best managed, most contemporary, most spacious, most entrepreneurial, most social, most business focused coworking space in Singapore, if not Asia Pacific. More meeting rooms, more light, more glass, more views, more opportunities to connect and meet people – just extremely impressive all round. Our clients, partners and potential clients love coming here.

I have yet to see any space in Hong Kong that comes anywhere near it. Even the best spaces there like The Cage and The Garage are pale imitations and remind me of student hangouts more than productive working spaces for entrepreneurs.

They might have started earlier with coworking in Hong Kong than Singapore, but Singapore learned about what entrepreneurs wanted faster and better.

Shanghai has some cool spaces. I especially like The Naked Hub. It’s a great place to hang out and speak at, but I actually think it’s not the best place to work. Too casual and not enough emphasis on the working side. The Naked Hub appears to be cool and a great place to hang out, but I actually do need to work there!

Singapore wins.

I have heard stories – and experienced it myself – of people approaching Singapore government bodies EDB and SPRING and having no reply, no encouragement or no help

Government support

Singapore government support is vast, wide and amazing. Every week I receive checks from the government for this scheme, that scheme or some other scheme I didn’t even know that I was in. They literally throw money at entrepreneurs to innovate and employ locals. No one comes near matching them for investment and input.

It’s open to question how smart some of this is. I have heard stories – and experienced it myself – of people approaching government bodies EDB and SPRING and having no reply, no encouragement or no help. Their LinkedIn company pages speak volumes for the fact that they are not really focused on understanding entrepreneurs.

You can throw money at something without it actually being effective. I wrote in an earlier blog that productivity has actually gone down since the government's productivity scheme, PIC, was introduced. Something wrong there.

Hong Kong: they would like to do what Singapore does, but don’t and can’t, it seems. Too many vested family businesses who don’t want the status quo to be rocked or disrupted. They wouldn’t qualify, therefore they don’t want others to benefit. That’s the feeling I get when talking to entrepreneurs there.

Shanghai: Free trade zones and enterprise grants abound here. There is a plethora of incentives and benefits, but very much aimed at Chinese entrepreneurs, more than expats, although there are also many schemes for expat entrepreneurs, if only you can find them.

Singapore wins.

Being a start-up

The start-up and entrepreneurial scene in all three Asian hubs is vibrant and exciting. There are many areas each respective government has designated as enterprise zones. I find these rather bizarre, having a special place just for entrepreneurs to hang out usually far from anyone else.

The main reason for being there is cheap rents. However, this is often counter-productive. The zone in Singapore, for example, is 20-30 minutes outside of the CBD (45-60 minutes from Changi Airport on the other side of the island).

Therefore, anyone like us whose clients are in or are quite happy to visit the CBD would have to travel to them, taking hours out of their day. That has its own cost and is more than what the cheap rent saves. And for entrepreneurs, the opportunity cost of time wasted is just as important as an actual cost.

I would much rather be in a CBD coworking space which is often just as cheap and more convenient. People love coming to visit me at Collective Works. They don’t so much at Block 71, the enterprise hub out at One North in Singapore.

But Singapore wins for effort.

Corporate hospitality and entertainment

This is very much down to your personal choice. Each city has amazing nightlife, incredible views (when you can see them in Hong Kong and Shanghai) and fantastic food and drink choices.

To me, the deciding factor in is the weather and getting around. Both favor Singapore, where you can go out to network or entertain on that rooftop bar 24/7, 365 days of the year. The other two can compete on views and food/drink quality, but not that.

Each is as expensive as the other. Even Hong Kong, with zero alcohol tax, is as expensive when it comes to buying drinks in a bar/restaurant as massively taxed Singapore.

Singapore wins because of the availability and access to venues and corporate hospitality venues all year around.

The weather

Having moved from the dark, dismal, cold, wet and miserable London to super sunny, hot and humid Singapore, I’m in no mood to experience the other side again. To me, that would rule out both Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Shanghai and Hong Kong are lovely in the summer when there is no smog/pollution. The trouble is, it’s always there. Sunny days, rainy days the smog is always there, more so in Shanghai than Hong Kong. It has a depressing effect on the city, its inhabitants and people’s moods.

Singapore wins.

The final score

Singapore 8, Hong Kong 1, Shanghai 1. What do you think? Where are you based and why?

About the Author

Chris J "Mohawk" Reed is Global Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Black Marketing, a B2B social media marketing consultancy. This article first appeared on LinkedIn’s Influencer blog and was re-edited for clarity and conciseness.

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