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Asia's Grand New Proving Ground

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Asia's Grand New Proving Ground

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With its active cultivation of civil servants, attraction of global talent and penchant for constantly reinventing itself, the tiny city-state of Singapore has many lessons to share.

Asia's Grand New Proving Ground

By Alice Yang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 403 )

Throughout history, the success of every city-state has always been short-lived.

It is this distressing reality that gives Singapore a particular sense of urgency, Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, states emphatically to a group of visiting journalists from around Asia on a Monday morning.

From the moment one boards a Singapore Airlines flight, one can palpably sense the striving for survival, development and progress that has been the history of this country with a population of just over 4.5 million and a land mass just two and one-half times that of Taipei City.

919 Skylights Track the Sun

The newly-finished Terminal 3 at Changi Airport is spacious, with large panes of glass, a 300-meter long vertical garden known as the Green Wall, pleasant waterfalls all around, and 919 skylights that open and close with the sun's path, making electric lighting unnecessary during the day.

Across Temasek Avenue, the Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre is hosting the World Cities Summit and Singapore International Water Week 2008, as well as a conference of Asia-Pacific mayors. Among the 5000 people at the center there are Middle Easterners in white robes, Africans in colorful traditional attire, and Europeans in natty suits talking about the latest topics of world interest, from environmental protection to exploitation of water resources.

Singapore gets two-thirds of its water supply from neighboring Malaysia, yet it has developed into a world water resource platform. People from around the world swap water rights here and discuss the latest technology for distilling pure water.

Urban Solution Provider

Singapore is frequently a world leader in bringing issues to the fore. After establishing itself as a center for finance and biotechnology, it now looks to position itself as an "urban solution center," encompassing water and energy. This puts Singapore closely in touch with the tenor of the times, as half the world's population resides in cities; China alone will have 600 million urban residents in the future. As one senior World Bank official observed, we can no longer view urbanization as a malignant phenomenon – cities are the engine of all growth.

Singapore has ridden this tide, turning its weakness as a tiny city-state into an advantage. Tapping into 40 years of experience, long-range planning, environmental protection, greenification, and water sourcing and purification have helped the country practically sail along unimpeded.

Singapore plans to work with the Chinese government to make Tianjin into an "eco-city," and it has signed environmental protection and water resource management contracts with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. As people from all over the globe gathered at the Suntec Centre, discussing such issues of common concern as water resources, waste water treatment, and mass rapid transport, "You'd think this was the center of the world, instead of the one-kilometer area around Marina Bay," one foreign journalist observed.

An Occasionally Awkward Relationship

Complex emotions have always accompanied the relationship between the two Asian dragons of Taiwan and Singapore. Singaporeans often criticize the kinetic nature of Taiwanese democracy, yet entertainment programs on CtiTV and TVBS are popular among many Chinese living there.

"It's fortunate that Taiwan is there as a ‘model of democracy,' which makes Singaporeans uninterested in pursuing democracy," quips Nanyang Technological University associate professor Tan Khee Giap.

Still, many people privately envy the Taiwanese for being able to curse at their government, and for getting to change ruling parties.

Meanwhile, many Taiwanese decline to feel awe for Singapore, feeling that such a small place is naturally easy to administer, that longstanding rule by a single party makes it easy to push through statutes, and that an absence of any critical media means government policies find support as a matter of course.

When it comes to people, both Singapore and Taiwan have their charms. Taiwan is full of enterprising energy – when one coffee shop folds, another pops up in its place. Singapore is dominated by big franchises and international brands, while mom-and-pop stores are few and far between. The entrepreneurial spirit there pales in comparison to Taiwan, but the people are restrained, diligent, law-abiding, not too demanding, and can accept forward progress for the sake of overall objectives.

Having one party in power for so long has admittedly helped in tiny Singapore, yet there are many small countries around the world, and many of them are weak. Similarly, many countries have a single ruling party, but most of these are beset with corruption and graft.

Yet a comparison of accomplishments is telling: In 2007, Singapore had an average per capita income of around US$35,000, surpassing Germany, while Taiwan had an average of US$15,000, less than half of that of Singapore. When it comes to quality of life, according to figures released just this July by the World Values Survey, Singapore is the world's 31st happiest country, while Taiwan ranks 48th. In the 2008 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook, Singapore ranked 2nd, Taiwan 13th. And when it comes to transparency and implementation of government policy, Singapore came out top in the entire world, while Taiwan hovers just outside the top 30.

Singapore offers a lot to learn from. Able to conduct long-term planning while making mid-range adjustments, it also distinguishes itself in keeping up with trends and adapting to change. In contrast to Taiwan's tattered environment and over-development, Singapore is faithful to its nature as a small country, requiring careful and deliberate planning. For instance, Singapore's national conceptual blueprint ranges 40 years into the future, with a "master plan" scheduled every decade over that time to chart the city-state's course for the coming 10 years.

Thanks to a long-term perspective, despite its strong sense of vulnerability Singapore is neither anxious nor chaotic, but instead moves steadily forward. Amidst the tide of globalization, Singapore analyzed its strengths and weaknesses, and has cautiously invested in China. With the rise of Asia, it seeks to become a gateway to the region. The Middle East is flush with wealth, yet it suffers from shortages of water, electricity and energy, and Singapore is looking to make an impact among the Arab world.

Addressing Widening Gaps

Globalization is very different from the international division of labor we had before, explains Kenneth Tan, assistant managing director of the Singapore Economic Development Board, speaking from over 20 years of experience in soliciting foreign business investment. International division of labor during the previous era was directed from above, Tan notes, but no one is behind the wheel of globalization; this is an age in which the most capable seize the lion's share, and winners win bigger and bigger.

Hard working, committed and never taking anything for granted, Singaporean officials consider and reconsider each proposal. Cabinet members receive email messages from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at two or three o'clock in the morning, and members of the public can write email messages directly to officials and request a response. "In the past, you could ‘think three times' before taking action, but now you have to think several times every 10 minutes," PM Lee explains in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine.

Systematic Thinking Yields Efficient Policy

All this can be largely attributed to Singapore's ability to do things systematically. Thinking systematically means setting goals, and proceeding step by step, not reactively responding to issues as they arrive. For instance, Taiwan is still bickering about water issues, with discussion concentrating largely on how to build dams and dredge waterways. In Singapore, water is managed as a comprehensive cycle, and most people can map out the systemic water recycling process.

On the very first day of her independence in 1965, Singapore put water policy first, establishing an inter-ministerial water resources agency. As Lee Kuan Yew asserted, all policies must bow to the liquid of life.

Singapore is equally systematic and methodical when it comes to attracting manpower.

For example, whilst Singapore used to attract foreign high school students to study, now it looks for top students from primary schools in China and India, giving them scholarships and assisting their entire families to immigrate. "We grab them a bit earlier, so in the future they will have a closer bond with Singapore," says Nanyang Technological University's Tan Khee Giap.

Singapore is quick and decisive. When an issue arises, immediate steps are taken to redress it. Like Taiwan, Singapore's waterways used to come under the management of various different offices, each in charge of a different section. But this way, if pollution was introduced upstream, the downstream agency was hamstrung, so everything was later placed under the direct central control of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. The Singapore Public Utility Board (PUB) originally managed both water and electricity, but electricity was later placed under the aegis of the Energy Market Authority, leaving the PUB to focus on water alone. Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, says that this arrangement may seem odd to some people, but it reflects the importance of water resources for Singapore.

Can the Good Times Last?

But just as the danger of falling down increases the higher one climbs, Singapore is vulnerable to every little movement on the international scene. The Asian financial crisis, SARS, and the subprime lending debacle that have marked the past decade were not Singapore's fault, yet each one set back its local economy in a big way.

As commodity prices have soared this year, Singapore, which imports every onion and egg, has been hit hard by inflation. With inflation at 7.5 percent in the first half of the year, taxi drivers and office workers alike are feeling the pinch.

Singapore has also made efforts in recent years to become a management center for private wealth, and as ostentatious mansions have sprouted up, the wealth gap has widened. In 2006 Taiwan recorded a Gini coefficient of 0.339. (The Gini coefficient is an indicator of income distribution inequality, in which a lower number indicates a lower level of inequality.) Singapore scored 0.472 for the same year. Behind these figures the faint rumblings of discontent can be heard.

In the case of certain policies, it remains to be seen whether they have been good or bad for Singapore. For instance, with 40- and 50-story buildings all over the island, how does that impact the souls and spirits of modern people longing for a pastoral life closer to nature? And if natural or man-made disasters hit the city-state one day, couldn't things spiral out of control despite even the most comprehensive planning?

Another example is Singapore's objective of a population increase from the current 4.5-plus million to 6.3 million, or another one-third the current level. Are such artificial targets feasible, and can transportation, housing and employment retain their tidy order as the government has planned? Should social order fall apart one day, would it take down political order with it? Can the long-governing People's Action Party respond? And with the departure of strongman Lee Kuan Yew, can Singapore navigate firmly through the turbulence?

Can Singapore, 43 years old this year, keep the good times going for another 50 years, or another century? Will its 50- and 60-story skyscrapers end up as dinosaurs?

"At least history has Venice, which has managed to survive for 600 years," reflects Gungwu Wang, chairman of the Governing Board at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a fellow at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, revealing the optimistic yet guarded attitude of most Singaporeans.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

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