Opinion | Singapore a stand-out global city

BRIGHT LIGHT: Singapore is seen as a laboratory where a successful formula has been created. But it's not without its contradictions.
BRIGHT LIGHT: Singapore is seen as a laboratory where a successful formula has been created. But it's not without its contradictions.

I’m in Singapore for a fortnight, and it’s good to be back. We spent six months working here in 2003 and got to know the place pretty well. The food is still great. The restaurants are world class. And is there anything better than eating barbequed seafood with sambal sauce and an icy cold beer from a hawker’s stall down by the water?

My love for Singapore chilli started in the 1970s when hawkers’ stalls lined one side of Beach Rd and the sea lapped against the other. Over 360 hectares of land have since been reclaimed on the sea side of Beach Road and on this new land stands a giant business district and entertainment centre. And, fortunately, new hawker centres by the new Marina Bay. 

But this development was a long way short of completion in 2003 after the Asian financial crisis had hit Singapore hard. Back then many wondered if this city-state had over-reached. 

A decade and a half later, Singapore has emerged as standout world city, an astonishing feat given it was not part of the so-called developed world 50 years ago.

Future jobs prospects for young people here are also world’s best. The national unemployment rate here is consistently low – reflecting Singapore’s successful transformation into an advanced services economy.

Crucial to this transformation has been the confident way Singapore has engaged with its region: with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Singapore firms have become central to economic growth in these nations. Singapore financial institutions supply finance for infrastructure, like dams, power plants and ports. Singaporean engineering firms are involved in their design and construction, and Singaporean firms are in the forefront of law, IT, data management and telecommunications.

Not surprisingly, the World Bank chooses Singapore as the place from which to manage development programs for these emerging nations. Singapore is seen as a laboratory where a successful formula has been created and the nation is now in a position to export what it has learned to its neighbours.

That said, Singapore has its contradictions. The exploitation of foreign workers – construction workers from the sub-continent, maids from the Philippines and Indonesia – sits sadly alongside the commitment Singapore shows to the development of its own citizens. Student dissidence is stomped on here. The media is heavily censored. The judicial system is heavy handed with hangings and canings still commonplace.

Hopefully, an acceptance of universal human rights will be the next stage in Singapore’s evolution. There are signs of hope. Taxi drivers have become genuinely witty and opinionated. Hotel staff is thoroughly professional and there is refreshing absence of subservience.

As Singapore becomes more and more international its people must surely make successful claim for the human rights and dignity that are more common abroad.

Then, there is Australia's development pathway. Back in the 1980s Australia had plans to be a major financial and professional services hub for the Southeast Asian region.

Looking from here – from the vantage of this city-state – we have fallen short of our aspirations. We have little interest in the nations of our region, do we? And we’re off worse for this neglect, surely.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.