In my book “Barn door to balance sheet” (ISBN 978-1-4461-1930-3), Chapter 9 describes social and business life in Singapore in the period 1972-74 seen through the eyes of a young man aged 30 fresh from the UK with his wife and two small boys. Each chapter in this memoir has a synopsis header to give the reader a taster of what is to come and for this chapter it begins “A hot sticky welcome to an island of surprises”.
It was with some trepidation that, with my (second) wife, I returned to Singapore for a holiday in early October 2010 to try to gauge how the island had changed over the intervening 36 years. My conclusion is that fundamentally it has not changed. By fundamental I mean in spirit, in culture, in political grip, economic strength and in geographical strategic placement.
Given its modern history, that I will not attempt to cover here since it is well documented, Singaporeans had to make good. They had split off from the Malaysian peninsula and were thus isolated on an island no bigger than the UK’s Isle of Wight at about 24 miles by 12 miles. They were not even self-sufficient in fresh drinking water. I would liken it to a second marriage. It starts from a failure and the spirit dictates that this one has to work; there can be no question of turning back. It just has to be made to work.
Few, if any, States on Earth could ever have been faced with making so many different cultures gel together. Whilst predominantly Chinese by origin, modern Singaporeans herald from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and all other Asian countries. Overlaying these peoples are expatriates from all corners of the Western World as well as from Australasia. The best external display of the accompanying cultures is the many and varied festivals. Singapore is a living example of how it is possible for a wide diversity of cultures to blend, fuse and accept each other.
The ruling political party of Singapore has a strong grip on power. It is a curious and intellectually interesting mix. A mix of absolute forbiddance of things deemed evil or capable of undermining the whole society organism. On the Island of Singapore, you will find no litter, no ostensible drug abuse, no violence or drunkenness. Yet, despite central control rigidly enforced, there is adventure and excitement in the air. Control is not stifling control; it is more akin to directional control. The Government seems to set a rigid framework within which things flourish. A rare combination.
Source – Bloomberg Businessweek.
“Singapore’s growth accelerated to a record 18.1% in the first half of 2010, spurring the currency and putting the island on course to overtake China as Asia’s fastest growing economy this year. A year after Singapore exited its worst recession since independence in 1965, tourists are arriving in record numbers and companies including Standard Chartered Plc are boosting hirings”.
According to Song Seng-Wun, a regional economist at CIMB Research Pte, “Singapore will be among the fastest growing countries not just in Asia, but the world this year”.
The longest single chapter in “Barn door to balance sheet” – Chapter 11 – is called Bell-Fruit and covers a period with a slot machine business in the UK. As a result, this extract from the Bloomberg source is of particular interest to the author and not least for purely economic reasons, “The two casinos run by Genting Singapore Plc and Las Vegas Sands Corp. opened in February and April this year (2010) after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government scrapped a four-decade ban to help double tourism revenue by 2015. The resorts have attracted millions of visitors to their slot machines and baccarat and roulette tables”. A taxi driver taking us to the Sentosa Island terminal in October 2010 said “I pick them up at the Malaysian causeway and all they say is – take us to the casino – they haven’t booked a hotel room so next thing is I have to find one for them , the casino hotel will be full”. This casino has been built on totally reclaimed land that just three years ago was a hole in the new ground. The boat shaped top is actually a swimming pool. (Image).
Bearing in mind that Singapore has no natural resources, the following statistics are amazing:- total expected GDP by mid 2011 – 300b S$, in 1973 – 10.4b S$. Conversion rate of S$ to £1 sterling now is 1.9, back in 1973 it was 8.5 pegged.
Finally, two more tasters of the relative wealth of Singaporeans today. Amahs (maids) were plentiful in 1973, cheap and of Chinese origin. Today, such women are working in much higher status jobs and maids are largely of Indonesian or Philippinean origin. Singaporean Ministers of State are reputed to be amongst the highest paid political leaders in the world.
The location of Singapore has not changed since 1973! It was, and remains, a vital factor in the island’s success story. At the southern tip of mainland Asia it acts as a gateway to the tiger economies and most importantly China itself. As importantly, it is a stopping off point for the increasingly affluent Australians now prominent in supplying their natural resources to Asia. My job in 1972-4 was to help merge two telecommunications bodies and the resultant Singapore Telecommunication Limited is now recognised as the leading telecoms body in the Far East. Strategic location was key to this development.
Singapore today is still a hot sticky island of surprises. I would not have missed it for the world.