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By Steve Kelman

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Singapore observations

Some impressions I formed during my visit to Singapore:

1) Like many big cities in Asian countries that are getting richer, Singapore hosts an enormous shopping mall scene. On a warm Thursday evening, the number of people, mostly young people, ambling along Orchard Road, the city’s main upscale shopping street, rivaled the number one might see on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a typical weekend afternoon. And on weekend afternoons, the crowds inside the malls resembe those in suburban American mall on the day after Christmas. 

Does this translate into a retail sales explosion in Singapore? A business journalist here told me it does not. Many Singaporeans come to the malls for the free air conditioning, to window shop and to meet friends at the ever-crowded upscale food courts in these malls, which compared with their US counterparts have a larger number of quasi-destination locations. (Several malls have outlets of Taiwan’s dumpling emporium Din Tin Fung, which boasts a Michelin star!). These malls also feature gigantic branches of the world’s major luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton (Asia’s favorite – on Orchard Road there are two Louis Vuitton shops within a quarter-mile of each other, and there is another stupendously sized one in the mall next to the Sands casino downtown). Other popular brands include Cartier, Chanel, and Prada. These shops, often two stories high, front with big picture windows onto the street from major Orchard Road malls such as Ion.  The luxury trade is still European-dominated;  US-based Tiffany’s has not been very successful in Asia outside of Japan, and at the Ion Mall their outlet is, as these things go, modest in size and has no street frontage.

2) Efficiency and predictability are Singaporean bywords. I have never needed to walk as a short distance from my gate to the passport control counter as in the airport here. Airport management carefully tracks the time between a plane’s arrival and the arrival of baggage in baggage claim. The mere breakdown of an escalator somewhere in the city’s subway system prompted a long news story in The Straits Times. The flip side of high efficiency, however, can be low adaptability. Two foreigners, one a very long-time resident and the other a relative newcomer to the island, independently mentioned to me that Singapore restaurants are very poor at adapting menu items to special requests (“hold the onions”), and wait staff often almost seem to freeze up when such requests are made.

3) Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants in Singapore are also paid far more than in any country in the world –- at the highest level, it can be as much as a million dollars a year, including performance bonuses. This was originally introduced as part of the government’s successful effort starting when the country became independent in the 1960’s to uproot a deeply ingrained culture of corruption, and partly on the philosophy that if the government didn’t pay top officials competitively with the private sector, it wouldn’t get the best people into government. There have been periodic public backlashes against these high salaries. There was a stir when a senior civil servant wrote a newspaper article about attending a Cordon Bleu cooking course in Paris, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, in the middle of the 2008 economic crisis, and more recently this question appeared again in the context of last May’s election, where the government’s share of the vote went down to 60% (Singapore’s political system will remain a topic for another day).It looks like top salaries will be lowered, though perhaps only for ministers and not the senior-most civil servants.

Posted on Mar 23, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 2, 2012 Nan Kunming

Maybe we need a deeper talk about the qu bie btw Singapore and Chinese social systems next time.

Fri, Mar 30, 2012 LeRoy Budnik Chicago

Well, you need to spend more time in Singapore and do your homework. Ask yourself why do they get richer? If people flock to the stores but do not buy is not the question, but rather, are their lives getting better? Relative to salaries of senior government officials, they have a different philosophy, acting as executives of a corporation whose motto is to make the lives of Singaporian's better. I suggest that you start your re-education with the book "From Silicon Valley to Singapore", which is about how in the midst of our pursut of low cost labor, they held onto the data storage industry and increased salaries, skills and ownership of a technlogy on which we depend. They have no debt, soverign wealth (i.e., investment funds made of 20% savings for retirement rather than social security), a commitment to clean activity (without corruption), care in placing their financial bets in education (either it supports the mission of the city-state, or it does not - you will not find grants to study something stupid, but openness to discuss why), etc. They attract wealth because with minimal regulation they have order and security. In the midst of economic downturn, soverign wealth allowed a stop to employer payments in exchange for not increasing un-employment, holding out for turn-around, and they did not miss a beat. Their little country is clean. Yes, they cain, but then we did not report in US media that the kid when he got beat up his father, hmmm. We have much to learn from Singapore, much to learn.

Fri, Mar 23, 2012 Alex

Interesting, but SO WHAT?

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