Singapore has recently been much in the news. Should we imitate, rival or insulate ourselves? These deserve to be examined closely as they are more complex than they may first seem.
As a model
One wonders how many of those who speak of Lee Kwan Yu as the architect of modern-day Singapore have an acquaintance with his two monumental works entitled “The Singapore Story” and “From Third World to First”. They are highly instructive and give a fine insight into autobiographical detail and reveal that the journey from a small and insignificant fishing colony to a thriving, modern Metropolis has not been a “cake-walk”. The importance of a principled vision, persistent effort and consistent incorruptibility have been recognized early as being key. However, even today there are those who bemoan the lack of “freedom”, “over-regulation” and “regimentation” of the people.
Some interesting observations are worth mentioning. Singapore needed to be “greened”. It was recognized that a Tropical Monsoonal climate and the accompanying rainfall run-off would result in depleted, acidic soils. Therefore, they first needed amelioration by heavy applications of lime. Teams were then dispatched abroad to identify and bring back trees of landscaping value. This has resulted in a remarkably pleasant and sylvan city. With many high-rise buildings, extensive air-conditioning and lavish lighting, energy requirements are huge. With no coal or natural gas of its own, it is said that with characteristic foresight, long term arrangements allow the piping in of natural gas from the inexhaustible resources of Kalimantan (previously Borneo).
Similarly, arrangements to obtain water from Southern Malaysia, are augmented by desalinated sea water. With a mixed population of Chinese, Malay and Indian populations, rather than trying to accommodate each linguistic group, English was the most effective and “neutral” language of choice. Everybody uses and speaks it today.Consequently, schools and universities are able to tap resources from virtually everywhere in the world. In allocating public housing (HDB), care is taken to mix communities and so avoid “ghettoes”. Marina Bay Sands, is a scenic attraction for tourists. Among its facilities is a large gambling centre. Open to all, locals are discouraged by a very heavy entrance charge. Politicians are among the best paid in the country and are expected to deliver proportionately. The Cabinet is thus one of such qualifications as would adorn a University Faculty anywhere in the World.
Interestingly, LKY apparently noticed that the Chinese in particular, habitually spat on the streets and dropped litter everywhere. No more – not even a cigarette butt, and until recently, even chewing gum was not permitted, as some vandals stuck it on the seats of the Metro! A superb Public Transport System is accompanied by huge taxes on private vehicles. If anyone desires posh cars or houses, they (including ministers and politicians) are welcome to indulge, but at their own expense. A mature, responsible and consistent foreign policy, meant that there are no enemies and the country enjoys universal respect. We have much to learn before hopes of “becoming a Singapore” can be real.
As a rival
In justifying the Port City as a Business and Financial Hub, we are set to surpass Singapore on the East and Dubai on the West. One must, to put it mildly, re-examine this hope. In the days of sailing ships an intermediate stop for re-fueling, taking in water and food, could have been fine. But in this Communication Age, when the mere press of a computer key could shift billions across Continents, this hope is overly optimistic. Financial Centres are recognized to be much more than buildings, roads, houses and drainage. Political stability, security of investments and that intangible “Business Environment” are as paramount as they are currently lacking and would take very long (perhaps never) to establish.
As an Intruder
Recently concluded Free Trade Agreement has been opposed on various grounds. Typical is a fear by the GMOA that this is a conspiracy to import ill-qualified doctors who will edge out our own! It is insulting to suggest that doctors in Singapore are ill-qualified. Anyone who knows anything about medical matters in Singapore (ask any of our politicos who chose to rush there for sundry ailments) is unreal. As for competing with local doctors, it would be lunacy for any doctor to abandon the comforts, security and emoluments they command in Singapore, to be bartered for what Sri Lanka may have to offer. If fear is of unlikely sub-standard quacks, there is of course the Act 16 which apparently prevents persons with inadequate qualifications and charlatans from practicing medicine locally. Thus flooding of Sri Lanka with doctors from Singapore, is an unwarranted fear. In contrast, there is little reaction to the visible presence of mainly “unskilled workers” from China to meet the labour needs of construction projects.
The widespread concern that the FTA with Singapore will turn Sri Lanka into a dumping site for electronic, nuclear and other hazardous waste, has not prodded Government to emerge from its chronic ineptitude and incompetence to stoutly defend the FTA, if indeed it has safeguards to make such a massive tragedy impossible. There is also justified fear that our international stature would be fatally damaged if we were to renege on FTA commitments, apart from the probability of massive legal costs. This should urge caution on the dangers of the staged “signings” of ill-prepared agreements to glamorize “State Visits” that are in any event, expensive and profoundly unnecessary image- building exercises.
Thus, matching Singapore is a very long way away.