ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Singapore: hard work the key to success
, September 7, 2002
Singapore's Government is founded on two apparently contradictory principles - "socialism that works" and meritocracy. Talk to one of the hawkers, who provide quick and delicious food all over Singapore, and there's not much socialism there, just a punishing workload and four hours sleep a night, for around $700 a week. In parts of Chinatown, not much has changed. You can still get a big, filling bowl of delicious chicken congee for about $2 and a cold bottle of beer for a few more dollars.
Meritocracy is closer to the truth. In Singapore, the talented are selected young and move ahead on the basis of their achievement, and the leadership is selected on the basis of their intellect. It's a punishing regime that begins in early childhood.Government role
When one talks of government involvement in the economy, perhaps there is some truth in "socialism." Just how much of Singapore's economy is controlled directly or indirectly by the Government is uncertain, but estimates go as high as 65%.
The Government holds a large portfolio of assets. Debate is going on at the moment on just how much the Government should own or control, and how much should be left to the private sector.
The Government has holding companies for both internal and external investments, and current thinking is that the Government should retain its stake in strategic industries - Singapore Airlines, for example - but other non-strategic assets may be sold off. If there is a sign in the wind, then it is that Temasek Holdings, the Government's main domestic holding company, is sorting out its portfolio.
Singapore encourages migration. Out? No, in. Even though Singapore is a small island with a population of four million, it is actively recruiting the 21st century's most valued resource - human capital; in other words, skilled and talented people.
The island nation even advertises on television throughout Asia to attract talented immigrants - one of the ads features an Australia information technology professional; another a Chinese man and another an Indian.
Singapore's greater advantage compared to the rest of the region is that everything works. Many companies have regional headquarters in Singapore, in its role as capital city of South East Asia.
New competitors are emerging. Malaysia poached two of the world's biggest shipping lines to set up shop in Johore, across the causeway in Malaysia, and it seems Maersk of Denmark and Taiwan's Evergreen think Malaysia is efficient enough to match - or at least approach - Singapore.
However, amid the high-level debates about the future of the island republic, some things are closer to home for the average Singaporean.
For the first time in many years, unemployment is a problem, with a seasonally adjusted level of 5.3% in the first quarter of 2002 - a figure likely to expand when new graduates come onto the jobs market.
Singapore must live with a touchy set of neighbors, particularly Malaysia, which supplies Singapore's water. Current negotiations to renew the treaty and adjust prices have hit a roadblock.
While it seems fanciful to think Singapore could threaten anyone - particularly much larger Malaysia - the occasional Malay firebrand brings up the spectre of Singaporean aggression.
However, on the ground, the people of Malaysia and Singapore are great friends, and many Malaysians have permanent residence in Singapore.Housing
When it comes to housing, the Central Provident Fund allows 70% of an individual's holding to be used to acquire housing; another 15% goes towards retirement and the final 15% is for health.
The socialism runs out when it comes to health. Singaporeans are expected to make their own arrangements for health care and top-class medical care is expensive, although private insurance is available.
In the 25 years since I first went to Singapore, much has changed, but there are still pockets of the old Singapore.
Just across the Singapore River from the tarted up selection of bars, restaurants and nightlife, a meal can still be had in an Indian cafe for a very modest price. Nick Leeson, the man who bankrupted Baring's Bank, is still remembered in the bar scene.
No doubt, Singapore is a tight little island, but it is a place that rewards intelligence and hard work, regardless of background. For this reason, Singapore will continue to flourish.