Singapore, a Geonomic City with an Identity Crisis
|June 12, 2014||Posted by Staff under Uncategorized|
This 2014 excerpt of Zocalo Public Square, May 22, is by Andres Martinez.
A small island nation of 5 million people (it’s really just a city), Singapore is tropical sticky but impeccably clean, inhabited by Chinese, Malays, Indians, and a multiplicity of guest workers from around the world all speaking English.
On the eve of celebrating its 50th anniversary as an independent nation, it boasts the world’s second-busiest seaport, a far higher per-capita income than its former British overlord, and a raft of number-one rankings on lists ranging from least-corrupt to most-business-friendly countries.
One business leader noted that he has never had to pay a bribe in his lifetime. It’d be a difficult claim to make in neighboring Southeast Asian countries (or developing nations anywhere. You couldn’t get by in Mexico without paying bribes, constantly.)
When it split off from Malaysia a half-century ago to become a separate nation of dubious viability, Singapore had little going for it, other than a determination to become whatever it needed to be —- assembly plant, container port, trustworthy banking and logistics center, semiconductor hub, oil refinery, mall developer, you name it.
A one-party technocracy has delivered the goods across two generations including affordable, publicly built housing for a majority of the population and a system of private lifetime savings vehicles.
Society’s cohesive glue, in addition to English, is a collective form of the “Singlish/Chinese” term “kiasu”, which roughly translates into a fear of losing or being left behind.
Kiasu usually refers to the extraordinary lengths to which people —- individually and collectively —- have gone to ensure success. And the motivating anxieties are not hard to discern in a nation-state so small it must rely on other countries for the water it drinks and the space to train its armed forces (they recall the brutal Japanese occupation during World War II).
Opposition parties are gaining some ground in parliamentary elections, capitalizing on unhappiness with strained public services, soaring prices, and an influx of super-wealthy foreign investors that resulted from the government’s openness to rapid growth.
Until recently, Singapore was among the most welcoming places to outsiders, with one out of every three residents born elsewhere. But with fertility rates dropping, the country opened the floodgates to immigrants to ensure continued growth and prosperity, turning immigration into a lightning rod.
A general unease about Singapore’s identity and concerns about overcrowding (owning a Honda Accord will set you back more than $100,000, in what has to be the bluntest form of congestion pricing anywhere) have forced the government to slow down its intake of immigrants and taper its growth projections.
Ed. Notes: Most reporters leave out that Singapore, like other Asian Tigers, could keep taxes low by keeping public recovery of socially-generated land rent high. Citizens paid a good portion of the rental value of their land into the public treasury (usually as a tax but as a lease premium in Hong Kong) but the taxes they paid on their buildings, purchases, and earnings was low. This formula worked so well in Singapore that they not only could afford classy public housing but also pay their citizens a dividend from surplus public revenue. Nowhere else can make such a claim. But the business press overlooks geonomics, unfortunately.