Sunday, 18 December 2011

Singapore’s mid-life crisis and the ‘deterioration by complacency’ syndrome

There was a time not too long ago that the phrase, "It can't happen in Singapore" was applicable to most any situation. After all, Singapore was clinically efficient. The city and its leadership had the Midas touch. The republic went from Third World to First World in one generation.
Notwithstanding his authoritarian tendencies, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) gave the world lessons on economic development using Singapore as an example. The city-state and LKY's clean government were models emulated across the entire developing world.
Yet, some of Singapore's lustre has worn off recently. Reports of violent crime, including murders, are more commonplace. Heavy rains cause routine disruptions, even floods. Orchard Road, Singapore's shopping showcase for tourists, seems particularly prone to flooding. The city's hitherto pristine infrastructure has aged. Litter is taken for granted. On some pavements, pedestrians walk at their own risk – cyclists brazenly flout the law banning bicycles from sidewalks.

The most recent atypical sign to find its way into Singaporean consciousness: problems on the subway system. 
Ong Teng Cheong, then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, inaugurating the Toa Payoh MRT station in November 1987
Machines, including subway trains, no matter how well maintained will breakdown from time to time. Singapore's two older subway lines, the 'red' and 'green' lines, have operated for over two decades so occasional stoppages are to be expected.

However, all is not well in Singapore if the subway system breaks down three times in as many days. Add in the other recent 'surprising' occurrences in Singapore and a case for 'deterioration by complacency' can be made.
So much for the "it can't happen in Singapore" principle.
Singapore 2011 is not 1970s Singapore. In 2011, economic growth is no longer sufficient to keep the Little Red Dot's population satisfied. More and more, quality of life issues will determine the longevity of government ministers.
All is not yet lost. Singapore's finances are in good shape. Large cash reserves are available for targeted spending on problem areas, such as public infrastructure.
Moreover, unlike most international state owned enterprises, Singapore's public sector corporations like subway operator SMRT are not reliant on government handouts for survival or growth. SMRT is self-financing and has the means to spend its way out of short term problems, like recent train breakdowns.
Singapore is no longer young. The republic has reached middle age.
Coming to terms with middle age is not easy for most. The body starts to creak and groan. The body also does not have the same physical vitality of the past.
Singapore's mid-life crisis may not be extreme but it has arrived.
Perhaps it is time for Singapore to start popping some vitamin pills and exercise more? With additional hard work the city might just be able to maintain its competitive edge for another few decades.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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