Our Readers' Opinions
January 29, 2016
SVG and Singapore: a comparison

Singapore has gone from being an underdeveloped country to a developed one in recent times. Its income per head is US$56,319, around the third highest in the world. (SVG’s is US$6,622) Yet Singapore is not fully regarded as a model that others might follow. The reason is simple. It is too small to be seen as a typical case. {{more}}The argument however does not apply to SVG since Singapore (244 square miles) and SVG (150 square miles) are similar in size, both being tiny countries in land area. What then are the significant differences between the two?

Both Singapore and SVG, started as British colonies, but whereas SVG was a plantation economy Singapore was an entrepôt and a naval dockyard. Like SVG, Singapore was involved in the breakup of a federation. Singapore was kicked out of the Malaysian Federation and rightly took it badly, resolving with a grim determination to succeed. Its two million people would have to be increased to five million and jobs found for all if it were to be a viable state. When the West Indies Federation failed we simply assumed that we would make it as a country of 100,000 people relying on emigration, aid, remittances, agriculture and trade preferences.

In Singapore, they made it clear that a country as small as theirs and devoid of natural resources could only survive through brain power. They, therefore, adopted a policy of recruiting and training the brightest for their public service and paying them accordingly. To them this was a straightforward matter. As Chinese, their history is long on meritocracy, if short on democracy. Several of their leaders were people with first class honours degrees from Cambridge. Their two universities are rated among the 13 best in the world. In addition several world class universities have established branches there. Their school system is regarded as among the world’s finest if not the finest, being particularly strong in mathematics and science.

The main sectors of Singa­pore’s economy are industry, finance and tourism. It has a fine natural harbour and is located on the Malacca Strait through which 40 per cent of world maritime trade passes. This has enabled it to becomes an entrepôt and get involved in processing some of the goods handled by its port. Hence it got an early start in industrialization.

Further by establishing world class infrastructure and having high levels of productivity it has been able to attract manufacturing investment from the rest of the world, particularly from the USA which set up some 1500 firms there.

Singapore’s independent judiciary’s, strong and effective monetary authority and fiscal incentives attracted many major financial institutions. So it has become one of the world’s leading financial centres.

SVG could not hope to match Singapore as regards industry and finance. We simply are not in that league. Had the Commonwealth Caribbean been able to function as a single political or economic entity, it probably could. One is bemused, now that oil prices are low, to hear Trinidad saying that they need to develop other sectors of their economy. Should we in the Commonwealth Caribbean not have known that we needed an entity of at least 5 million people and an economy with agriculture, mining, manufacturing, finance and tourism sectors? But that is history.

What is instructive for us at this time in SVG is what Singapore did about tourism. In 1984 they built a new airport, Changi. It cost US$1.5 billion and took six years to complete. Their great Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, categorically wrote ‘it was the best 1.5 billion dollar investment we ever made’. We hope that something similar may be said about our airport one day.

Singapore also developed one of the top airlines in the world. We are not hoping to go there. There are, however, other aspects of their tourist development policy that merit our close attention. These include:

1. Physical infrastructure

2. The greening of the country

3. Hawkers

4. Maintenance of public buildings

5. Cleaning up rivers and beaches

6. Noise pollution particularly from loudspeakers providing outdoor entertainment

7. Littering

8. Politeness of the people

9. Traffic

There is no need to go into all of these in great detail. A few observations are however in order. The Singaporeans felt that the road from the airport to the city should be of first world standard to impress the tourists and other visitors. The other day, looking at some 80-year-olds coming off a cruise ship, I wondered how they would cope with our uneven road surface, open drains, potholes and crowded sidewalks.

Singaporeans decided to turn their country into a tropical garden city and visited most of the tropical world in order to get ideas. They ruefully noted – “unfortunately beautiful free flowering trees from the Caribbean would not flower in Singapore because we do not have their cool winters” In a word they were fighting to get what God gave us naturally.

The other day, a Vincentian economist and patriot living in the US, Frankie George, asked if I could not get Government to do something about the hawkers taking over the streets. I told him that Julian Francis had made a valiant effort but had had to back down. Apparently even the Singaporeans were fazed by this one. They say they were only able to get rid of the hawkers when the economy could provide plenty of alternative jobs.

Our people are, for the most part, courteous. You should see how Austrians do not give way on the roads compared to Vincentians. But I worry about some of our young people. Not enough of them are replicas of Mother Jacobs, The Venners’ grandmother, with her old world courtesies.

Finally Singapore almost regretted that it had inherited democracy from the British. It made no bones about curtailing what we call our rights. The same party has been in power for 50 years. With us democracy has flourished so much that even the duncest of us must at times feel that what we have going on here borders on lunacy. I have no wish to destroy the opposition but, as I have pleaded previously, we should adopt a more consensual and less adversarial approach to politics.

Looking at Singapore, we can at least agree that Government was right to put so much emphasis on education and on the airport.