Those of you who have read my Insights regularly over the last two years may remember that I am a relative newcomer to Wilmington, having lived here for almost four years. In many ways, I like being a newcomer. There is a freedom that comes with being new to a situation, because you have not been a part of shaping the previous history. You aren’t constrained in your thinking because you didn’t know what has been tried. In another way, that strength can be a weakness because you don’t bring the context of the past.
I was reminded of this on a recent adventure to Asia, which included a stop in Singapore. I have been to Singapore several times before, most recently about 15 years ago, and the changes there are incredible.
Many of you may not be aware of the history of Singapore, or even where it is on a map. Singapore is an island nation located at the end of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Its history goes back to the 1300s. It was colonized by the Sir Thomas Samford Raffles in 1819. Its geographic location in the Straits of Malacca and its natural deep water port were always assets.
Singapore continued as a British colony until it was overtaken by the Japanese in World War II. At the end of the war, there were a few fits and starts at independence, and in 1963 Singapore signed the Malaysia Agreement along with Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak to become the Federation of Malay. This did not work either. In 1965, the Malaysian prime minister expelled Singapore from the federation and the parliament of Singapore established the island as an independent and sovereign republic. The Jurong Industrial Estate was developed in the 1960s to industrialize the economy.
In 1961, the Economic Development Board was established to formulate national economic strategies. In the 1970s, Singapore attracted Shell and Esso to establish refineries. (I know oil and gas are very controversial here in Wilmington. It was just one of the things that they did, so keep reading.) The government of Singapore invested heavily in education so that Singapore’s workforce had desirable skills. English was taught in the schools.
In the 1980s, Singapore’s Economic Board began to focus on attracting higher-technology industries. In 1981, the board opened Singapore Changi Airport and then established Singapore Airlines, which in my opinion is one of the best airlines in the world.
The Port of Singapore has become one of the busiest ports in the world, in part because of the natural harbor. Singapore also invested heavily in this asset. The ship I was on sailed out of the harbor in Singapore at sunset. My mouth was agape for a good hour as we left the harbor. Singapore has a massive capability to attract and handle ships of any size from anywhere in the world. I also understand that it got help from the British in the 19th century when they established a naval base there. This is a capability that Singapore will continue to develop. For Singapore, the costs involved are inconsequential and just a detail in the overall business plan.
When I was last in Singapore back in the 1990s, it was working on its capabilities in the area of financial services, high tech and tourism. The Singapore skyline is replete with skyscrapers with the most unusual designs and housing the headquarters and regional headquarters of major companies from around the world.
The thing that left me musing after my “hop on, hop off” trip around Singapore was one of its newer industries, medical tourism. Singapore is establishing itself as a destination where people come on vacation (as they do here) and get a medical procedure done. Doctors in Singapore are able to do these procedures less expensively than in many other countries. Singapore is able to attract some of the most skilled physicians in the world. To date, this is from scratch to a $630 million industry in Singapore.
I started by asking the question, what could Wilmington learn from Singapore? Let’s not start with all the reasons why Singapore is different and all the things that it can do that we can’t. This is an island nation that began in 1963 (before the time I-40 connected Raleigh and Wilmington). At the time that Singapore was established, its population was less than 2 million (bigger than Wilmington). It now has 5.3 million people. The life expectancy in Singapore is 82 years and its GDP is $297 billion. What could Wilmington learn from Singapore?
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