More than one way for Singapore to adapt

I refer to the 21 Feb 2013 Straits Times letter “Singapore must adapt or perish” by Mr Ee Teck Ee [1].

Mr Ee claims he was told there has never been a city-state that survived for long. That is not true, Mr Ee shouldn’t blindly accept what he was told. The Greek city state of Athens survived more than 2,500 years of Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule to become the capital of Greece today. Although Athens is no longer a city-state today, it has more than survived and has grown in stature to become the capital city of a larger nation. If Singapore were to become the capital city of a much larger nation in future, do we say Singapore has failed to survive or do we say Singapore has been elevated to the status of capital city? Other city states that have survived to the present day include Venice, Florence, Genoa, Basel, Zurich, Cologne, Mainz, Nuremberg, Naples, Geneva, Bologna, Milan and Rome [2].

While Singapore has no natural resources, we are gifted with a resource as precious as any natural resource can be – our excellent geographical location at one of the choke points of the shipping route between Europe and the Far East which was the reason for our founding and of our prosperity. In fact, our port managed to grow strongly during the shipping downturn years of 2008, 2009 and 2011 as a result of good luck in our location which has provided an advantage over our main competitor Hong Kong [3]. The growth and development of neighbours like Vietnam has benefited us rather than made us obsolete [3]. Invasion risk is low today, given our global police, USA which has demonstrated its commitment to reversing invasions.

The need for a critical mass of talented workers doesn’t say anything about it being 3.5, 4.5, 5.5 or 6.5 million. Many cities have succeeded with much smaller populations. Stuttgart with a population of about 0.6 million is home to Mercedes, Munich with a population of about 1.2 million is home to BMW, Smaland-Sweden with a population of about 0.7 million is home to Ikea and Zurich with a population of about 0.4 million is the financial capital of Continental Europe. So it’s not true that we have to keep growing our population to maintain status quo or to grow further. We just have to come up with one or two global winners and grow these winners. Stuttgart, Munich, Smaland-Sweden and Zurich clearly demonstrate that we don’t have to adopt more outsiders to survive.

While the United States has blossomed due to the talents and skills of many gifted immigrants; Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, South Korea and Taiwan have also blossomed but with mostly indigenous talents. The United States’ is just one way of succeeding but not the only way.

Adapting to the world doesn’t mean we selectively choose that part of the world to compare with and adapt to. Adapting to the world means we look across the entire world and recognise other possibilities other than growth at all costs.

[1] STforum, Singapore must adapt or perish, 21 Feb 2013

[2] “Cities, Constitutions, and Sovereign Borrowing in Europe, 1274-1785” page 44 Table 1, David Stasavage, London School of Economics and New York University

[3] Straits Times, “Shipping slump? Not for our ports”, 19 Feb 2013
Good luck comes in the form of Singapore’s location which has provided an advantage over its other main competitor Hong Kong, which is grappling in recent years with China’s slowing growth. South-east Asia and South Asia are seeing more business and production work, which is benefiting Singapore.
“There’s more manufacturing being done in Vietnam and in Bangladesh for items like textiles,” said Mr Andrew Chiang, regional head of Asia for shipping, offshore and logistics at DNB Bank. “As these countries have less developed ports they usually use the port in Singapore (to ship the goods farther away).”
The result is that Singapore’s container-handling numbers last year grew more than those of any regional competitor.

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