First impressions from Singapore

First impressions from Singapore

I flew to Singapore on June 5 for a friend’s wedding. And since I could not make it back in time for the elections, I decided to stick around for a couple of days to meet up with investors interested in Turkey, as well as a few economists covering Singapore.

I have a dozen or so meetings lined up for the first half of the week, and I will be relaying you investor perceptions of the election results and the Turkish economy, as well as my take on Singapore’s economy, in my next couple of columns. But as I always do when I visit a country for the first time, I would like to devote this first column to my initial impressions.

The very first impression you get about Singapore is actually more related to Turkey. Once you see the famed Changi Airport, regularly voted the world’s best airport, you realize how good Atatürk Airport is. Sure, it is a great idea to have a spa/gym on the premises, but the whole place does not look as state-of-the-art as Istanbul’s main airport.

The second thing you notice is that the city-state is all about efficiency and convenience - whether you see citizens and permanent residents entering the country via an unmanned station or when you buy a SIM card with ample data and domestic/international minutes for a little over $10 at a currency exchange kiosk. No wonder the city-state tops the World Bank Group’s ease of doing business rankings.

Once you get on the metro, you realize that you are in a multi-ethnic country living in harmony. Nearly two dozen tongues are spoken in Singapore, with its four official languages of English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.

Thanks to the bilingual nature of the education system, almost everyone speaks English. In fact, language skills are not the only part of Singapore’s education system that I am envious of: Singaporean students top standardized tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The multi-cultural environment, combined with its sporadic rain showers, reminded me of a non-dystopian version of 2019 Los Angles in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” That futuristic impression was reinforced when I saw the Supertrees, 18 steel-clad concrete structures adorned with over 162,900 plants, at the Gardens by the Bay. But Singapore’s futurism is more apparent in ideas than in trees, as I will explain in the next column.
Last but definitely not least, it is impossible to write about Singapore without mentioning the country’s founder and long-time ruler, Lee Kuan Yew (informally known as LKY), who passed away on March 23. In addition to his more admirable qualities, he may have been the first of the “soft dictators,” as argued in a recent paper by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, which I summarized in my March 30 column.

Both authors recently wrote in the New York Times that LKY “combined parliamentary institutions with strict social control, occasional political arrests and frequent lawsuits to cow the press but also instituted business-friendly policies that helped fuel astronomical growth.” Of course, LKY was much more able than the new incompetent dictators Guriev and Treisman consider. Contrary to the kakistocracy prevalent in these types of regimes, his rule was founded on meritocracy.

I was extremely surprised to see President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s name mentioned in the op-ed and paper. After all, as we all know, Turkey is not an autocracy, but an advanced democracy. No wonder he is accusing the NYT of trying to weaken and divide Turkey.