Smarts in Chaotic Times: The Singapore Citistate

By Peirce, Neal R. | Nation's Cities Weekly, June 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Smarts in Chaotic Times: The Singapore Citistate


Peirce, Neal R., Nation's Cities Weekly


What happens to a world-famed, smoothly functioning citistate when the nations around it fall victim to economic convulsion, and political upheaval?

To find out, watch Singapore. All spring the leaders of this 238-square-mile island of booming trade and finance watched nervously as the economies of neighboring Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia deteriorated.

The Singapore dollar, Singapore stock exchange and Singapore property values all declined sharply. Now Indonesia's Suharto has been forced from power. Total Indonesian economic collapse could be just a month or two away. Another fear: massive flight of Indonesia's 7 million to 8 Million Chinese, fleeing violence and seeking refuge in tightly packed Singapore, a nation of just 3 million people.

Yet if any place on earth could steel itself against such threats, create security in the midst of chaos, it's this citistate.

Expelled from Malaysia in 1965, dependent on neighbors for raw materials and drinking water, Singapore once had an economy likened to a rickety sampan. Yet today its per-capita income is greater than Great Britain's. It's the world's largest port (handling 14 million containers last year), third-largest oil refiner, a major center of global manufacturing and service industries.

Two years running, Singapore's economy has been ranked the world's most competitive (for medium-term growth) by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum. A paternalistic technocracy led by brook-no-opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew pulled off the Singapore miracle. And the government is fiercely controlling.

Critical media is hit by lawsuits. Property is easily seized for development projects. Spitting, chewing gum and spraying graffiti bring heavy penalties. Sell drugs and you can expect a death sentence.

But Singapore's plus sides are stunning--full of lessons for the world. William Stafford of the Seattle Chamber and Trade Development Alliance led a study mission of 85 top Seattle business and government leaders to Singapore this spring, following up on visits to such citistates as Rotterdam, Hong Kong and London. He reports: "Singapore had the most impact of any of our trips. We wouldn't want to emulate their government.

But they make an ad form of, global best practices. Want to build the world's best port, best airport, best housing or public transportation system? Check Singapore."

Take public transit--not an afterthought, but developed as an integral part of Singapore's economic development strategies and careful use of every foot of' available land, from downtown out to the carefully planned new towns.

The system encompasses 52 miles of rail, 48 stations, trains comparable to the London and Paris metros, linked to bus services feeding passengers to the stations. …

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