Singapore’s Business Schools Stand to Gain from Hong Kong Protests

Both cities offer very different value propositions, but the protests may yet tip the balance in favor of Singapore for some MBA students

Hong Kong and Singapore have long been rivals, engaged in competition for financial, economic and shipping power in east Asia. That rivalry has played out in the business education sector recently. 

In terms of MBA applications, Singapore stands to gain from the Hong Kong protests that spilled over on to university campuses, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon at students. Some business schools, including CUHK, were forced to suspend classes until the new year as fires blazed on campuses. 

Amid the chaos and violent clashes, Hong Kong risks ceding business school applications to Singapore, agrees Jochen Wirtz, vice dean of graduate studies for NUS Business School in Singapore.

However, he says it’s too early in the MBA admissions cycle to see any impact the protests have, potentially, had on applications to NUS. Many prospective students begin weighing up schools months or even years in advance of making an application. 

But the uncertainty caused by the prolonged protests could create problems for Hong Kong business schools, says Lawrence Linker, founder and CEO of Singapore based admissions consulting firm MBA Link. 

“No one I've spoken to seems to have any idea on how this will be resolved,” he says. “You can imagine that business minded people are going to take pause.” 

A tense standoff

The protests began in June 2019, triggered by Beijing’s plans to allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. 

No business schools in Hong Kong would comment directly on the impact of the protests on their applications. 

But the tense standoff could hit applications from mainland China especially hard. There has been an exodus of mainlanders from Hong Kong of late, as some Cantonese speaking protestors are anti-Beijing, and there have been isolated cases of racism against Mandarin speaking mainlanders.

Some Hong Kong business schools are reliant on applications from the mainland. About half of full-time MBA students at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, for example, are from mainland China, says Andrew Yuen, associate director of MBAs. 

He adds that some classes at CUHK’s business school have been temporarily suspended. 

It’s a similar story at a number of other universities, due to battles between protesters and police on university campuses, once scholastic sanctuaries. Under an agreement with police, officers are not supposed to enter campuses, aside from in an emergency or if they have a warrant or court order. 

But Hong Kong law permits them entry, if they suspect a criminal offense has been committed.

News reports claim that companies are halting their hiring programs in the semi-autonomous city, and recruiters are finding it more difficult to woo overseas talent to work there. 

Some corporations are also reportedly considering relocating to Singapore, or other cities. This could, potentially, hit job opportunities for students in Hong Kong. 

Wirtz, at NUS in Singapore, says: “Beyond the immediate term, it stands to be observed how quickly recovery would be once the situation stabilizes. 

“Undeniably, [Hong Kong] has long been an attractive hub for regional talent.” 

More competition for faculty

While attracting and retaining talent can be a challenge for companies in Hong Kong, it’s also a problem for their business schools: Wirtz says there is greater competition with Hong Kong for faculty than MBA students. “Schools in Hong Kong and Singapore have strong research cultures and offer globally competitive compensation packages,” he says. 

“Hong Kong and Singapore are attractive locations for [faculty] moving to Asia from the US or Europe.” 

The two Asian economic powerhouses offer students vastly different career opportunities, says Ang Ser-Keng, academic director of the MBA at Singapore Management University. 

Yuen, at CUHK, agrees. “While Singapore attracts more business from southeast Asian countries, Hong Kong is the major gateway for [mainland] China.” 

This is reflected in teaching at CUHK. It offers courses focused on the Belt and Road mainland initiative to build infrastructure and political influence around the world. And Beijing’s Greater Bay Area innovation and economic area, an apparent rival to San Francisco that spans Hong Kong and neighboring areas. 

Competition between Singapore and Hong Kong over the past half century for financial supremacy has been a topic of much discussion. But Singapore has relative strength in the energy, pharmaceutical and technology sectors, says Linker, the admissions consultant. 

He adds that Singapore has more southeast Asian heritage and Hong Kong is more north Asian, culturally. In Hong Kong, locals speak Cantonese or Mandarin as well as English, though some refuse to speak Mandarin in protest against the mainland. In Singapore residents speak English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin. 

Both cities clearly offer very different value propositions, but the protests may yet tip the balance in favor of Singapore for some students. As Linker says: “There's no doubt that job opportunities and the business school ecosystem that relies on them are both at risk if the situation in Hong Kong continues.” 

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