The many lights (and shadows) of Singapore

In his book "A Fortune-Teller Told Me" published in 1995, the Italian journalist and author Tiziano Terzani called Singapore an island that "operates on air conditioning". Indeed, already in the last century, walking through the streets of the small city-state was a unique experience in Asia: the air conditioning pouring out of the doors of banks, shops, shopping malls (the first) ended up cooling the air along the footpaths. And if you needed something, during a time when cell phones were not yet within everyone's reach, all you had to do was go into any place of business and make a call free of charge. The streets were so clean that they seemed polished, and tossing out a cigarette butt on the ground could get you a very heavy fine. In those years Singapore was astonishing for its cleanliness and modern skyscrapers, while still permeated by an exotic atmosphere that became lost in the old colonial neighbourhoods or at gatherings at Raffles Hotel to drink a Singapore Sling. But starting in the 2000s, the city-state became more than just a peculiarity.

It became a model for many countries, while its role simultaneously changed: from a mere port hub to an international port of call that serves more than 100 companies and over 62 million passengers and moves more than 2 million tons of airborne goods. It passed from a labour-intensive production centre to a centre for the manufacture of high value-added products. Furthermore, it is currently the first country in Asia for digital infrastructure, connected to 23 active submarine cables and with one of the world's highest broadband speeds. One can argue that this is all easy on an island with only 725 km of surface area and a population below six million of which more than 30% are not citizens but permanent residents. But becoming a financial, commercial and technological centre that places Singapore among the richest and most innovative cities on the planet was not such a given. Its secret is perhaps linked to a combination of the role of private individuals and the state's leading role in a difficult balance between democracy and authoritarianism, conditioned by an inclination for political stability that has become a fundamental dogma.

Singapore's success therefore depends on what the South China Morning Post called "an iron triangle of government, private capital and corporates" that Zen Soo and Chua Kong Ho summarise as: "Policies that are friendly to businesses, a coordinated approach between universities and academia with private companies to provide a trained work-force, and a high quality of life to attract globally-mobile entrepreneurs and top-grade talent".

On 15 June 2020, the country began phase two of its three-phase approach to resume activities after the Covid-19 crisis which, if not yet over, has been under control since the beginning. It includes the resumption of most activities, although subject to safe management and physical distancing measures. The government has announced a new 23 billion dollar plan of support measures to save as many jobs as possible, a new package that brings Singapore's post-Covid investments to 92.9 billion dollars, or nearly 20% of GDP. But money is not enough. The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) is the government agency of the Ministry of Trade and Industry responsible for strategies to strengthen Singapore's position as a global hub for talented businesses, innovation and start-ups. According to the EDB, if today you can quickly and effortlessly connect to national fibre broadband and one of the most responsive 4G mobile networks in the world, Singapore will build 5G networks in 2020 with coverage envisaged for at least half of the city-state by the end of 2022.

The peaceful fishing village which became a commercial hub in colonial times is now what Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman calls a "miniature Silicon Valley", with 80 of the world's top 100 technology companies present there. According to estimates by JLL's Innovation Geographies*, Singapore is the third most innovative city in the world behind San Francisco and Tokyo, supported by significant levels of domestic and foreign investments and a rapidly growing start-up scene. But is it all light?

A few black holes lie among the light and dark of the city-state's bright successes. As of December 2019, the population of foreign workers with a non-permanent visa in Singapore totalled about 1.5 million people. Many of these migrants come from China or neighbouring countries, but they do not all have adequate guarantees and rights: most of them work in the key sector of shipbuilding, often in high-risk conditions. The problem of the dormitories is proof of this, where about 300,000 migrants were locked up during quarantine. These large buildings were a source of overcrowding, and in combination with poor hygienic conditions, a lack of testing, and having long ignored the problem, these centres turned into dangerous outbreaks of the pandemic. Singapore worked to correct the situation, but slowly and after the outbreak was on the verge of expanding. If the iron triangle – government, privates and corporates – works, perhaps a fourth pole should be added: society in its entirety, even those who are just passing through.

*Jones Lang LaSalle is an American commercial real estate services company