x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Singapore an island thriving after the downturn

Happy days are here again for Singapore, writes Frank Kane.

Raffles Hotel's iconic sikh doorman stands in front of the hotel in Singapore. Wong Maye-E / AP Photo
Raffles Hotel's iconic sikh doorman stands in front of the hotel in Singapore. Wong Maye-E / AP Photo

Singapore has made the strongest recovery of any Asian country from the global financial crisis, and it certainly shows on the streets of this hyperactive city-state.

As a global trading hub, Singapore was severely affected by the knee-jerk reaction of global manufacturers and exporters just under three years ago. GDP growth slumped into the red in 2009, unusual for an economy regularly turning in 6 per cent or so in recent years.

But it bounced back strongly last year, with a leap of nearly 15 per cent, in the top three of the GDP league, behind only Qatar and, strangely, Paraguay. In the first quarter of this year, it showed a 22 per cent leap over the comparable period.

Happy days are here again for Singapore.

You can feel the optimism on the tree-lined streets and boulevards of the city, many of them reclaimed from the sea. This throws up some interesting quirks of topography. Beach Road runs through the heart of the commercial district, with not a wave in sight. But 30 years or so ago, it was on the shores of the Straits looking out towards the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

I was informed of this by a Malay-Singaporean acquaintance who, in the space of a 15-minute car journey, told me as much as I could digest of Singaporean history and culture.

Raffles Hotel, he said as we passed it, was the "best in the world", and he would hear no arguments from me about the Burj Al Arab, the Emirates Palace or London's Claridge's.

If Raffles had a rival, he said, it was the Fullerton Hotel just around the corner, which used to be the old General Post Office in British imperial days. "Now it costs S$3,000 [Dh8,979] a night" he exclaimed, in what he regarded as a clincher to the debate. End of argument.

But there is no real comparison to be made between the UAE and Singapore, at least in terms of physical appearance. (Political economy is a different and more complicated matter).

Singapore is green and luscious, with not a speck of sand visible anywhere. And there are trees with leaves, huge spreading tropical giants, rather than palms with fronds.

Although it has one of the highest population densities, and land for residential and commercial use is at a premium (hence the sea reclamation), there are plenty of gardens and parks in between the glass and steel high-rises.

There are also lots of Chinese-style buildings with tiled, sloping roofs and elaborately carved cornices.

It comes as quite a shock when you see one nestling between two modern office blocks, but it's a reminder that Singapore was for much of its history a Chinese trading outpost.

More than 70 per cent of the population is ethnically Chinese, and a form of Putonghua is the largest spoken language. But, reflecting the cosmopolitan background of the city, there are four official languages (English, Malay and Tamil, as well as Chinese) and a government policy of bilingualism: English plus a "family tongue".

Given all this prosperity, natural harmony and social tolerance, it's hard to understand why Singapore has acquired a reputation for dourness and regimentation - Switzerland with monsoons.

Sure, the government, under the People's Action Party since 1959, likes to show it is in control of society and media. The death penalty and corporal punishment are mandatory for certain crimes.

But as one Western banker pointed out: "They [Singaporeans] have lots of laws, but they are not draconian law-enforcers. They tend to deal with things quietly."

That sounds more sinister than it was intended. He meant that Singaporean society is overwhelmingly united behind the existing power set-up, which has served it well materially since the 1960s. The natural-default position of meritocratic Singapore is respect for the law and encouragement of hard work and thrift.

There is a Singaporean sense of humour too, and my acquaintance was a good exponent of the genre. "Yes, this is a fine country," he said as we arrived at our destination. "You drop rubbish in the street, that's a S$300 fine, drive in a bus lane, S$130 fine …"