OCT 16 — While I was on holiday recently, I struck up a conversation with an American couple at the airport. When I mentioned I was Singaporean, they responded by saying, “The country must have changed a great deal in your lifetime.”
And I answered, “Yes, it has actually and it’s changed more in the last 10 years than it did in the previous 30.”
My husband, who isn’t Singaporean, was surprised by the response. He said, “But surely Singapore developed and grew so much in the 80s and 90s, do you really think the last 10 years brought more change than that?”
And the answer is yes.
The reality is I am not old enough to remember the real kampong days. I was born in the 80s and I can only really remember Singapore from the early 90s by which time we were already a fairly affluent and developed nation.
It certainly wasn’t like today but we had our highways and MRTs and a per capita GDP much higher than that of our neighbours.
And that dynamic held through my childhood, my time at university and when I was starting my working life. Singapore was a very successful and affluent regional centre.
We were South-east Asia without the chaos and visible poverty. Small, neat, well organised and famous for being boring and keen on the rattan cane.
From the hawkers to childhood games and coffee shops, there was a world we could relate to.
A small, slightly goody two shoes nation still trying to out-compete Malaysia at the SEA Games and make clear that our city was just as good as Bangkok even without the rollicking nightlife... we were still unquestionably in the shadow of bright lights, big city Hong Kong.
But in the last decade or so, this changed. It shifted radically. Take Singapore’s financial ecosystem: The amount of money and wealth within the country would grow radically.
Our city began to emerge not simply as a regional but as a global financial centre. We would outshine our regional competitors Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur as domestic politics undermined their growth efforts.
Then as Hong Kong destabilised under the weight of pressure from the mainland, Singapore benefitted from business and wealth fleeing from Hong Kong and emerged as Asia’s financial centre.
I remember being amazed when our GDP overtook Hong Kong’s around a decade ago. And by other metrics too, Singapore began to emerge as a global heavyweight.
The Global Financial Centers Index rated Singapore as the world’s third most influential financial centre, after only New York and London. Ahead of such behemoths as Tokyo, Paris or Seoul.
But I suspect even that doesn’t quite capture the reality. While London and New York may yet have huge capital markets, they are facing increasing challenges.
Brexit and questionable economic policies have left London struggling. New York can’t escape the fact that it sits in a deeply divided and partisan USA, its infrastructure is ageing and the city has struggled to regain its lustre after Covid-19.
Beijing and Shanghai which were once also potential global cities are now behind a virtual Iron Curtain.
Singapore, meanwhile, has continued to soar. A safe, secure, well-managed, well-armed island in a world gripped by protests, rising prices, collapsing bubbles and insecurity.
Singapore is open for business.
Its reserves of capital are some of the largest on Earth. With an ever increasing suite of financial services and asset management services on offer, more and more funds have been pouring in.
It’s a growing snowball of money propelling us to the forefront of global finance: We are setting the pace.
And this transition isn’t just abstract, it is visible across the country. The scale and sophistication of the shops, restaurants in the city now are almost unparalleled anywhere.
I see fleets of Mercedeses and Porsches in public housing. On our highways, it’s the same story with some Lambos thrown in. There is a level of visible wealth and globalisation that was unthinkable just a decade ago.
And this is why I say that Singapore has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 20 or 30.
It’s this last decade that saw us not just hitting the big league of world cities but potentially winning the league. The British government just passed a series of reforms trying to make London’s financial landscape more like Singapore’s — they are trying to be us.
Of course in many ways this is a very good thing. Singapore’s economic success means there are extraordinary opportunities available for middle-class Singaporeans today.
There is so much going on in the city we can participate in. At the same time, the government has been reinvesting some of the vast capital inflows into local infrastructure, schools and housing.
But there are also downsides. Such a rapid inflow of wealth means many people have been left behind as prices rise around them.
To some extent this jump from regional to global was also achieved by immigration.
Millions of new residents — new citizens and foreign workers — have come to this country. Such an influx of new wealth and talent has brought huge benefits but it has also undone some of the nation-building we saw growing up.
To secure as much wealth as we have so quickly, the country has also offered more incentives to the world’s wealthy than virtually anywhere else.
Singapore has attracted billionaires and billion-dollar companies by being low tax but this means a high degree of inequality is inevitable.
So there have been trade-offs. And our final ascent to the apex of global capital is something I don’t think we have fully processed.
Singapore is a nation of strivers — we have been struggling to catch up from Day One. But suddenly we are on top of the whole world and I think we may only just be realising what that means.
The world is increasingly trying to emulate us but I am not sure we ever settled on who we are. We have a sound economic policy but as a nation this is still a tiny, fragile and new place.
Now we must bear the weight of being the epicentre of global commerce at a time when globalisation and global finance are under considerable strain.
Across the world, there is broad popular disenchantment with the fruits of financialisation and finance-led growth.
People are questioning where a world led by finance has brought us and at this moment, Singapore has emerged as the world centre of finance-led growth.
It is still an enviable position but it does come with challenges — most of all, what does all this mean for ordinary Singaporeans?
I guess we’ll find out in the next decade.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.