Thursday, February 08, 2007

Letter from Singapore, Part 2

By Uncle Cheng

Here are a few comparisons with Hong Kong that struck me during my recent stay in the lion city. Of course, as we all know Hong Kong compares very badly with Singapore on three important quality-of-life points — cleanliness, air pollution and preservation of heritage buildings. But what struck me quickly this time is that Singapore’s economic rebound and currency appreciation are having a big effect on Singaporean living standards. Certainly the gap with Johor Bahru (in Malaysia) is widening, and I suspect that Singapore is pulling ahead of Hong Kong on many economic fronts.

Among Singaporeans two common topics of conversation are that the economy is pulling ahead of Malaysia’s (they tend not compare themselves with Hong Kong) and the seriousness of crime in Johor Bahru. It made me recollect that here in Hong Kong there is always much talk about economic growth on the Mainland — and the problem of street crime in Shenzhen. Serious crimes are rare partly because punishments have been traditionally very severe. (though things seem to have mellowed a little under the new Chief Justice but the reverse seemed to be happening in Hong Kong)

On the question of air pollution I should add a small caveat to correct the common misconception that Singapore air is totally pure. In fact, like Malaysia, Singapore does suffer from seasonal smoke haze which the wind blows from Indonesian forest fires. But subtract the Indonesian haze and Singapore’s own air is remarkably pollution-free — unlike Hong Kong shamingly putrid air.

Believe it or not but Singapore traffic moves freely and is not gridlocked like Hong Kong’s. This is partly because Singapore pioneered many years ago an electronic pricing system to reduce traffic congestion. By comparison, the Hong Kong government’s only solution to traffic congestion seems to be to build more roads, which as we all know immediately turn into more traffic jams.

When it comes to preservation of heritage buildings the comparisons between Singapore and Hong Kong leave us totally shamed and humiliated. Through very strict laws including compulsory purchase, Singapore has preserved and renovated not just isolated historic buildings but entire streets and city blocks. The result is that the historic buildings have become a magnet for small businesses, bars, and restaurants.

While our Financial Secretary recently declared that the idea of a sales tax had been abandoned, Singapore proceeded to announce that its sales tax would be increased from 5 percent to 7 percent. I fear that Hong Kong has made a mistake. Of course, any new tax is going to be unpopular but Hong Kong urgently needs to widen its tax base. Otherwise we will be forever trapped by the colonial high land price policy on which the government relies for much of its revenue.

Singapore is also aiming to make itself more attractive to business with its plans to reduce its corporation tax, now at 20 percent compared to Hong Kong’s 17 percent, to 19 percent.

If it is any consolation there are at least two areas where Hong Kong beats Singapore hands down — one of which is fireworks. The New Year fireworks in Singapore were very low key and brief compared to the mega-spectacular that Hong Kong delivers. Perhaps the ever-careful Singapore government does not like its money to go up in smoke!

The other is even more difficult to quantify – Singapore is still a boring place.

Sophie: Must ask Uncle Cheng to come to Singapore more often and show him the more happening places as indicated in this report last year! :-)

The Straits Times
8 November 2006
Surprise! S’pore is No. 2 for nightlife and dining

In any case, Singapore is “hot”, say more than 1,500 frequent travellers and travel experts who ranked it No.2 for nightlife and dining in a global brand study.

The Global Country Brand Index was compiled by brand consultancy FutureBrand and public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

Singapore did not even make it to the top 10 last year in this category. The finding stunned nightspot operators.


Vittal said...

Very interesting post! Thanks, Uncle!

ed said...

"This is partly because Singapore pioneered many years ago an electronic pricing system to reduce traffic congestion."

Reducing traffic congestion via the ERP is just the official line. People who can afford to buy cars are not going to flinch too much when it comes to paying out a couple of dollars a day. This is just yet another money-making scheme. singaporeans, of course, are generally too intellectually docile to realise that.

As for the COE, which is basically paying for the right to pay for a car(utterly ridiculous!), it can be argued that, like the above, it is again another money-making scheme. Traffic congestion itself will regulate traffic congestion, and especially so in a small country where public transport is readily available at numerous points. In other words, if traffic gets really bad, people will naturally switch to public transport as the opportunity cost is insignificant in terms of time spent on the 'mrt' or bus. Where there is public transport readily available - and of the efficient standards that can be expected from the 'mrt'; where traffic congestion increases the time spent to get to the place of wage-slavery; where the costs are far greater to own and drive a car, people will naturally tend to move towards public transport. If traffic is still congested, there may be other inelastic reasons. And it is this latter that a government frequently fails to cite in order to justify COEs, ERPs and other such self-serving BS.

Cheng should put some thought into this.('Uncle'? He's not MY uncle)

ed said...

"In any case, Singapore is “hot”, say more than 1,500 frequent travellers and travel experts who ranked it No.2 for nightlife and dining in a global brand study."

Perhaps they were referring to the night safari in the zoological gardens ;).

I wonder if those compiling the study took into consideration the number of asian countries these 'frequent travellers' have visited and the time period spent there. Secondly, the age-group and gender may also enable us to infer the reasons why they thought singapore was great for 'nightlife and dining'. Thirdly, the proportion of 'frequent travellers' to 'travel experts' in the sample would be relevant in indicating the expert representativeness of the findings.

We shoudl also keep in mind that the idea of a 'great nightlife and dining experience' is subjective and simultaneously indicative of the perspectival calibre of the traveller.

ed said...

p.s. interesting site sophie. There is much stimuli for thought here. Keep it up.

scarface said...

what is "perspectival calibre of the traveller"? i agree that singapore is hot... and humid. so, it's like a damp cloth in terms of excitements. boring, in other words?

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