Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Letter from Singapore

By Uncle Cheng


Singapore may not seem the most obvious place for Hong Kong people to choose for a holiday but that is where I found myself for family reasons last Christmas and new year. It was a revealing experience and I kept on making comparisons in my mind between Singapore and Hong Kong.

The first thing I learnt, and which becomes obvious in discussions with Singaporeans, is that Singapore is on the verge of an economic boom. After years of slow growth there is great optimism that new government policies are lifting both the economy and peoples’ spirits.

Property prices are rising markedly, foreign bankers are flooding in, huge public infrastructure projects are underway, and investment capital is streaming into local bank accounts from such local nations as Indonesia and even from distant Europe. Suddenly all the ingredients for economic growth are looking good.

One of my sources is a nephew of mine who is in a favourable position to know such things as his work keeps him in close touch with business and economic prospects in Singapore and the nearby region. I was especially interested to hear him explain how the government’s decision to reverse decades of anti-gambling policy and licence two super-casinos has transformed the economic horizon. It reminded me of how Macau’s economic fortunes were totally transformed by the decision to end the old casino monopoly and open the gambling market to virtually open competition.

One argument always used by people who oppose casinos is that they attract crime, triad activity and get poor people into financial difficulty. But as everyone knows the Singapore government has always prided itself on its low crime rate and its very tough treatment of all criminal behaviour. How, I wondered, will the government be able to square its anti-crime reputation with the new casinos. Well, as usual, Singapore has thought the issue through and announced a range of measures which it says will keep the casinos free of crime.

Yet despite its great wealth, efficient government and highly disciplined society Singapore’s miniscule size remains its greatest disadvantage. You cannot flex impressive muscles when you are a dwarf. The city state’s prosperity has to depend on the friendliness of its neighbours.

No neighbour is more crucial than Malaysia for it is from there that Singapore imports fresh water and daily foodstuffs, especially vegetables. It reminds me of Hong Kong’s dependence on the Mainland for the same things. Incidentally, the worst floods in the state of Johor for many years threaten large increases in Singapore vegetable prices through the lunar new year.

An irritating problem between Singapore and Malaysia has been the disagreement about a bridge to replace the existing solid earth Causeway. When no agreement could be reached about the proposed bridge which Malaysia favoured, the Malaysian government decided to spend millions on building new extravagant immigration facilities at its border. As Malaysia had made the case for an overhead bridge, which would have opened up the waterway to small shipping, Singapore hesitated and raised other issues such as the sale of sand and the use of Malaysian air space. Indeed the bridge became such a prickly issue that at one stage Malaysia came up with the bizarre suggestion that the bridge should be built without Singapore's approval. Presumably that would result in the bridge stopping in mid-air at the Singapore border!

Next week I will continue my look at Singapore and in particular I will make some comparisons between Hong Kong and Singapore — comparisons that, I regret to say, are not favourable to Hong Kong.

Sophie's note: Please see Singapore's marketing pitch for Marina Bay, the centrepiece of the Lion City.

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