As I am currently a resident of an airport for the near future, I feel it best to catch up on some long overdue blogging. Having spent the better portion of 2 weeks in Singapore, that seems like as good a topic as any. I don't pretend to have become an expert on the place, but I have picked up a few tidbits which have piqued my interest. Many of these have derived from my favourite source of information: taxi drivers.
Singapore is an interesting case, to put it mildly. Much of its recent history is a blur, cobbled together from various travelers' notebooks, journals and the occasional scribbled map. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries it was probably uninhabited. As recently as 50 years ago, the place was still a backwater entrepot, with very little in the way of a diverse economy.
Yet in visiting modern Singapore, this is difficult to imagine. The city-state is modern, vibrant, wealthy, and stuffed with the sort of cultural icons we associate with truly global cities. New resorts and theme parks are sprouting up left and right, while international business people continue to arrive in droves to the business district and conference centers. Next month, the city state will be hosting the 2010 Youth Olympics.* And despite a huge number of foreign workers (a million, according to one cabbie), there is a continuing need for more.
Because it is so tiny, Singapore's success has not been able to rely on natural resources or a large labour force to drive its economic growth. Instead, its limited resources have been carefully "channeled" towards certain key areas to create an open and highly competitive economy. What's more, as they are so vulnerable to the shifting economic winds, the city state has been forced to continue to innovate and shift to new areas. For instance, they are now making a concerted effort towards becoming a world leader in biotechnology research, while the financial services sector continues to grow in regional importance. There is also the recently announced launch of the largest power grid research station in Asia. Further examples abound.
Clearly Singapore has had success where other countries in the region have not. So are there lessons to be learned for other emerging markets? Many appear tempted to dismiss Singapore as a "unique case" that is difficult to copy. There are some good reasons for this.
Obviously, it is small. This makes it easier for the government to carefully allocate economic resources. But many other countries are small and fail to achieve something similar. Access to water and its position along a major shipping route clearly helps, but this does not account for the diversity of Singapore's economy. The colonial background has also left its mark on certain ways in which the country functions, notably the legal system.
The stable political situation certainly plays a role. Although the system is nominally a representative democracy, in practice it is a semi-authoritarian one-party state. Freedom House ranks the country as "Partly Free" (up from "Not Free" a little while back) due to what they label as draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. Yet, according to one senior diplomat here, the system still kind of works. The ruling party is scared of losing power and local government representatives hold regular council meetings wherein residents can air their grievances. Voices are heard, potholes are fixed. The Lion State's size once again makes this a workable option.
So while its true that, in many respects, Singapore is a unique case, this does not mean that its lessons are not transferrable. This is not news to some; China has long been watching its tiny neighbour grow from a poor nation to an immensely prosperous one, looking for hints on how to do the same. I would also wager to guess that a number of the Gulf Emirates have attempted to out-Singapore Singpore - they certainly share an obsession with heavily air-conditioned shopping malls and a need for economic diversification.
But just what kind of lessons are we talking about? To my eyes, one of the most striking things about Singapore is how multicultural it is - there are people living in Singapore from just about every country in the region. What's more, they appear to do so harmoniously. This is something supposedly modern European cities struggle to achieve. My most recent cabbie, of Indian descent, seemed to agree. Despite being a minority, he felt reasonably well represented. For instance, although the Chinese population dominates the government, there are a number of senior ministers with important portfolios who are Indian.
The noticeable exception is the substantial Malay minority who, despite being the indigenous population and still more populous than the Indians, are less well represented in government. They continue to face restrictions on practicing their culture are also economically disadvantaged (although policies are being developed to mitigate this).
But despite this imbalance, things in Singapore are a far cry from the race riots which apparently caused havoc in the slums of Singapore back in the 1960s. One possible explanation for this are the ubiquitous HDB flats, or subsidized housing projects nicknamed after the Housing and Development Board, which oversees them.
Some 85% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats (private property on the island is obscenely expensive). Although some HDBs can themselves still be quite costly, they offer what appears to be an intelligent solution to addressing the imbalance between the wealthy and the poor. For instance, although HDBs are subsidized, they do seem to be mere handouts. There are conditions attached, and there is the possibility for upward mobility if you work hard and achieve economic success. This creates positive incentives for HDB-dwellers, whereas most public housing projects tend to leave their residents to stagnate.
At least that's the theory. Whether this is true in practice, I have no idea. But the results would appear to speak for themselves. It's not for nothing that, as noted above, China has been closely watching the HDB system's progress over the years as it searches for ways to deal with the challenges caused by a huge increase in urban populations.
More importantly, my taxi driver thought the system works pretty well. That's good enough for me.
*I confess to have never heard of the Youth Olympics before; I felt slightly less stupid upon discovering that this is the very first time such an event has been held. Now ya know.