Thursday, 27 October 2011

Singapore's success: An observer's take

By David Mason, The Business Times, 25 Oct 2011

I'VE been coming to Singapore for the last 48 years, which makes me feel ancient. Mind you, the first visit in 1963 was merely a one-day stopover on a ship back to the United Kingdom.

We berthed at what is now the container terminal and I bought my first transistor radio at what is now Raffles Place, from a small shop which was near Change Alley. We could not afford Robinsons on the other side of the park.

Immediately, I can hear young Singaporeans saying: 'Huh?'

Singapore has changed dramatically. I came to live here in 1979 and stayed until 1997. Since then, I have worked here on and off every year and have had the opportunity to see the place change and grow.

Modern Singapore is a success story. From a swampy island, beset with mosquitoes, whose only claim to success was its geographical location and its huge harbour, it has become one of the world's leading cities.

You all know the statistics, because you are brought up on them. Shipping, oil refining, transport hub, banking centre, high-tech R&D, regional centre in every way. Singapore is a success.

Yet this is fragile.

The world is truly global economically and Singapore exists only because of economics. The current outlook for the global economy is scary, to say the least, so Singapore must take stock.

You have had the same governing party since Independence and, if I have learnt one thing from them, it is that the nation requires stability. Without it, you are lost. I'll avoid the arguments about democracy because I'd like you to let me in next time I come to Changi.

But the message is very clear - do not throw away what your forefathers fought so hard to establish.

The modern Singapore shocks - in the nicest sense. Our first home was in Upper Thomson, with kampungs on three sides. The night-soil tanker visited every morning and woke me up, to get to work in a non-aircon bus.

Being an ang moh (Caucasian) and not used to the weather, I used to leave wet marks under my shoes by the time we got to Ocean Building. Now you have the most modern of buildings, an advanced transport system (okay, it gets crowded, but the aircon works) and fairly full employment.

You are also known as a place of enjoyment for the well-heeled, and some of them now live here. You have casinos, Formula One racing, the best zoo in the world, arguably the world's best food and an amazing number of foreigners.

Which is where this starts to get serious.

Singapore started and sustained itself through the incredible efforts of its people. The Government was tough and restrictive, but for a good reason - to establish and prosper as a nation.

Discipline was key to this and I know - I had my hair cut in 1979, but I didn't really mind. I had the privilege of working with several of the 'Old Guard' and admired their ethic. Singapore prospered and built so much of its current infrastructure because of it.

The Housing Board estates are the best public housing in the world. Don't believe it? Try another country.

Jurong has just gone unbelievable for its size. The CBD has to be close to the best in the world for businesses.

But there is a problem. Years ago, if a taxi driver even mentioned political dissent, we would both look around to see who was listening.

Today, I hear dissent from many Singaporeans. The last General Election is testament to a growing sense of unease among the population. The haves and the have- nots are getting further apart and the discipline is fading.

There is much dissent about the apparent unchecked immigration from Asian sources, despite the agreed need for it on macro-economic grounds.

What worries me as a sympathetic observer is not the development and the immigration - I can only applaud it. It is the lack of knowledge and sensitivity of the younger generation of Singaporeans.

Singapore was fought for and won as a globally important nation by the mid- 1980s. Its younger management have been born since then and display two general problems. The first is that 'it has always been like this, so it will continue' - an awful sense of birthright and complacency. The second is a lack of understanding of how the country was born in the first place.

Asians have a tradition of respect for their elders. Singaporeans are in danger of losing it. If you do so, you put your nation at risk.

The writer was a partner with Price Waterhouse Singapore for 18 years. He now runs his own consultancy in business communications in the United Kingdom. He spends several months a year with clients in Singapore.

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