Out with the old, in with the new

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 13 Jul 2003


SINGAPORE is in transition, working to shed much of its old self to survive in a new world. And if despite all the evidence there is still cynicism about the intention, events in the past week should dispel it. 

I attended the launch of a major S$100mil five-year government project that was untypical Singaporean. 

It took place at Zouk, one of the city’s biggest nightclubs, amid flashing lights and three huge TV screens reminiscent of an American party convention. 

Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang, a staid, serious type, unfolded a plan to put Singapore on the world media map. 

It was the latest sign of a restructuring Singapore that is looking for new ways to create prosperity to escape a fundamental decline in employment and manufacturing. 

IMAGE CHANGE:Bar top dancing has finally been given the green light in normally strait-laced Singaporeas authorities,who for years have kept a tight rein on fun,show gradual signs of loosening up. - AFPpic

Lee’s plan calls for a doubling of the media industry’s contribution to the economy with a larger share of the global market with its locally produced television, films and video games. 

This requires more than money, a creative talent and a freer environment with less censorship. 

The straight-laced minister confessed this was his first official function in a nightclub. Someone whispered to me: “Probably never stepped foot in one.” 

Singaporean leaders are not renowned party-goers, day or night. 

Its choice was obviously to signal the coming of a new hip era. Of late, the government has been trying to project Singapore as a 24-hour fun city. 

With its export-economy turning sour, economic necessities are interceding in the debate between conservatives and liberals about how far or fast it should go. 

Singapore's future lies in a services economy that relies on a creative environment and a talented workforce. 

In one week, several relaxation measures were announced, including: 

z Allowing gays to work in the civil service, even in sensitive areas if they declare themselves. 

z Permitting bars to open all-night and less restriction on dancing in the premises, including bar-top dancing. 

z A soon-to-come relaxation of censorship laws on films, television, magazines and the performing arts, the first review in 10 years.  

z An about-face approval to allow the sale of certain types of sugarless chewing gum at pharmacies. 

“Some people feel that Singapore is a boring place. We need to correct this because boredom is very corrosive to the human spirit,” said Minister of State for National Development Vivian Balakhrishnan. 

Singapore has compelling reasons for seeking an image change. Struggling with a weak economy, it would welcome more tourists. Bringing back chewing gum cleared the way for a Free Trade Agreement with the US. 

Not only are Singaporeans complaining about a “boring life” but its foreign perception, too – a belief that the city’s quality of life is not reflected by its wealth. 

The recently released UN Human Development Report 2003 places Singapore in 28th place, below Barbados, whose main economic activity is sugarcane plantations. In GDP per capita terms, the republic ranks higher, at 21st. 

It is a less developed society than New Zealand, Spain, Israel, Portugal and Greece, all of whom have lower per capita incomes. 

Singapore is to lighten up as part of its search for a new base for future growth. 

To put things in perspective, rising unemployment is the chief woe for advanced economies. It is at a 20-year high in the US, with the jobless rate reaching 6.4%, comparable to slump-hit Japan but lower than most in Western Europe, especially Germany and France. 

Some 8.3% of Hong Kong workers are jobless after it lost more than a million jobs when the mainland opened up. At the same time, manufacturing companies in Shenzhen are providing jobs for five million mainland workers. 

Lower and semi-skilled jobs, too, are migrating from Singapore to China and other lower-cost manufacturers, probably never to return. Worst hit are those above 40 years old. 

The result is a downsizing Singapore, where almost everything good is coming down. 

It is undergoing a large retraction from the golden years, when the trend was expansion and upgrading at breakneck pace. 

On the very top of the downsizing is the economy itself, which had been rising by 10% or more a year; at a mature state, it lowered to 6%-7%, then struggled to achieve 4%. 

After decades of assured job security, workers at state-owned Singapore companies and government agencies are being jolted by the new reality that they can be sacked. 

Downsizing of major companies, however, continues to spread, led by the civil service and the giant government-linked corporations. 

Tens of thousands of jobs have recently been eradicated by blue-chip employers like SIA, the Housing and Development Board, Port of Singapore Authority and big manufacturers like Chartered Semiconductor, the world's third-largest chip foundry. 

It is partly to shed excess fat and partly to fend off competition in a global downturn, It is widespread, covering every sector, including hotels, restaurants, retail outlets, financial institutions, publishing houses; the list goes on. 

Downsizing does not just stop at retrenchment but also reduction in pay and bonus, selective mandatory no-pay leave and early retirement. 

“It's a harsh environment out there,” said Rajeev Malik, regional economist for J.P. Morgan Chase. 

The government has also allowed subsidised public flats (where 90% people live) to be used as offices and 1,100 residents, many of them without work, have applied to do so. 

The Singapore dream itself is being downsized. A growing number of Singaporeans are moving out of their condo homes to live in cheaper government-built flats. 

Despite a poor market, one type of property is undergoing a little boom for the wrong reason. These are the smaller three-room public flats that are in better demand because hard-hit dwellers are downsizing from five-room apartments. It is a reversal of the past when people persistently upgraded to bigger homes. 

Even the government is downsizing, cancelling construction projects worth billions to house its ministries. 

This nationwide scaling down is perhaps the best part of economic restructuring. It is creating a leaner, hungrier workforce that is becoming more competitive than some rivals that move in the opposite direction. 

The rest of it, it is hoped, depends on a freer environment and the new generation of better-trained Singaporeans. 


o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com  

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