Governance of a City-State
Commentary: 2 strategies for a post-Covid economy: S’pore, South Korea vs Taiwan, Hong Kong

While Singapore and South Korea have committed to easing Covid-19 restrictions, Hong Kong and Taiwan remain locked in to their zero-Covid stances.

This has profound implications for urban life and economic competitiveness for the four Tiger economies.

In his address to the nation on March 24, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced significant changes in Singapore’s Covid-19 restrictions that reflect a strengthening of the city-state’s decision to live with Covid-19.

These include expanding group sizes from five to 10 and perhaps most significantly, allowing the wearing of masks to be optional in outdoor spaces.

Singapore is not the only country that is committing to Covid-19 endemicity amid a global surge of the Omicron strain.

South Korea is similarly moving ahead with its plans to remove nearly all Covid-19 restrictions, despite its daily Covid-19 cases registering in the hundreds of thousands.

The story in Hong Kong and Taiwan is very different.

While Hong Kong has decided to relax some of its travel restrictions, it remains very much committed to its “dynamic zero-Covid” approach that has seen authorities initiate strict lockdowns and social movement restrictions whenever Covid-19 cases emerge.

When asked on March 24 if Hong Kong would follow Singapore’s lead in easing Covid-19 restrictions, chief executive Carrie Lam demurred and said that Hong Kong would follow its own path.

Similarly, Taiwan continues to adhere to its zero-Covid strategy while relaxing some travel restrictions for business travellers.

Among the four Asian Tigers of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, it is clear that there are two distinct exit strategies from the pandemic, with two distinct outcomes for urban life and the economy.

Despite similarities in their societies and economies — and more importantly, similar initial strategies to contain the outbreak in the early stages of Covid-19 — why are the trajectories of the four Tigers diverging so sharply now?

For Hong Kong, economic and political proximity to China has required the city to adhere ever more closely to China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” stance.

This stems in part from Hong Kong’s economic reliance on China but appears to also be driven by a need to ensure closer political alignment between Hong Kong and China.

Taiwan’s relative success in managing Covid-19 infections through voluntary measures and extensive contact tracing may have paradoxically reduced the urgency to ease its Covid-19 restrictions.

Political factors also play a part, with local leaders reluctant to abandon zero-Covid as elections loom.

Like Hong Kong, Taiwan enjoys strong economic ties with China.

In 2020, 43.9 per cent of Taiwan’s total exports went to China. With the territory’s Covid-19 export boom in no small part driven by its Chinese demand, there is little incentive to reopen its borders completely.

The situation is, however, very different for Singapore and South Korea, since both are independent sovereign states that rely heavily on the global economy for their export sectors and access to basic necessities.

Unlike Hong Kong and Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea do not have the luxury of being able to depend on a single economic centre.

Rather, both countries serve a large segment of the global economy and need to rapidly find ways to re-establish themselves within global trade and people flows.

The four economies have also diverged widely in their vaccination efforts.

Singapore and South Korea have fully vaccinated more than 85 per cent of their eligible populations. In contrast, vaccination rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan remain in the 70 per cent range, with vaccine hesitancy prevalent among the elderly.

This high level of vaccination in Singapore and South Korea has allowed both to re-open their economies confidently while minimising fatalities.

For Hong Kong and Taiwan, re-opening could itself be fatal, as their “Covid naïve” populations face the risk of severe illness and death with the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron strain.


This divergent set of exit strategies will give rise to profound impacts on the urban fabrics of the four economies as well as the regional economic architecture within which these four economies are enmeshed.

Urban density and vibrancy are key drivers of a city’s attractiveness as a place to live and do business.

The great urban thinker Jane Jacobs has long extolled the benefits of maintaining high urban density and mixed-use developments.

Her research has shown how these can enliven the character of a city and stimulate creativity through serendipitous encounters among its inhabitants.

Both urban density and urban vibrancy have come under severe pressure over the past two years, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced cities to be shut down and required people to maintain social distance in public spaces.

For countries such as Singapore and South Korea, the decision to live with Covid-19 also means a commitment to bringing back urban vibrancy and street life.

By easing restrictions on social gatherings, food and beverage operations as well as international travel, Singapore will reclaim some of the urban vibrancy that was lost over these past two years of fighting Covid-19.

For Hong Kong and Taiwan, commitment to a zero-Covid approach also means a decision to keep cities under lockdown and social movement limited.

There are longer-term economic implications of taking a zero-Covid approach. With borders remaining shut and economic activity dampened by frequent lockdowns, Hong Kong may well see a decline in its long-term attractiveness as a global city.

These concerns are already beginning to materialise.

Bloomberg economists have slashed Hong Kong’s economic growth forecast by 0.6 percentage point to 1.4 per cent for 2022, while they expect Singapore’s economy to grow by 4.7 per cent in this same year.

In a meeting with pro-Beijing politicians on March 28, Hong Kong’s Ms Lam admitted that Hong Kong is caught “in a dilemma” between meeting Beijing’s expectations and attracting foreign investors.

These dynamics may give rise to tectonic shifts in the regional economy.

With the gradual decline of Hong Kong, growing insularity of Taiwan and resurgence of Singapore and  South Korea as global hubs, we can expect to see reconfigurations of regional trade and financial flows that prioritise countries that have chosen to reopen their economies at a faster pace.

As Singapore continues to find its way in a post-Covid world, it is imperative that we get our urban economics right.

For planners, this means fostering urban vibrancy while maintaining pandemic safety. For policymakers and businesses, this means reclaiming our position as the world’s leading global city and rekindling our economic relations with the region and beyond.


Dr Woo Jun Jie is senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

This piece was first published in TODAY on 4 April 2022.

Top photo from Freepik.

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