Signapore: A Globalizing City-State

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Copyright Adam Robinson, 2004. Do not reproduce without prior consent from the author, Adam J. Robinson. Please write for proper footnoting and word format to Adam.Robinson@yale.edu. Also, visit the author's website at www.ajrobinson.blogspot.com.

Along with New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong, Singapore has molded itself into a top-tier hub for international business. Boasting high-quality infrastructure, political and economic stability, trade openness, low corporate taxes and a superb geographic local, Singapore has long attracted billions of dollars in foreign direct investment since its independence from Britain in 1963 and Malaysia in 1965. Singapore has boosted domestic industry by linking many of the most important Singaporean companies in the late 1960s to the Ministry of Finance. With the unparalleled success of the Singaporean economy over the past four decades, these companies have diversified and expanded to every sector of the modern economy, and some have undergone global expansion as well.

In this paper I will discuss Singapore's developmental history, focusing mostly on macroeconomic factors. I will analyze Singapore's parallel strategies for developing its economy as well as Singapore's evolving strategy for its future as a first world country. I will argue that Singapore's economic model was highly successful at developing Singapore's economy, but that radical changes must be made if Singapore is to sustain its rich-country status in the future.

Developmental History of Singapore

Between 1965 and 1997, Singapore grew 6.6 percent on average, faster than any other country in the world. With GDP in 2002 at US$ 87 billion, Singapore's economy is spread over three million Singaporeans and one million foreign workers, meaning a higher average income than many industrialized Western countries. Until the late 1980s, manufactured exports dominated Singapore's economy, making up 18 percent of GDP in 1960 and growing to 27.3 percent in the 1990s. For about two decades now, however, the business and financial services sector has been Singapore's chief revenue generator, accounting for a slightly larger proportion of GDP than manufacturing in 2003. Today, Singapore is also the world's twelfth largest services exporter and fourth largest exchange market, and is the locus of Asian currency exchange.

The Singaporean government manages the economy by ensuring the highest amount of macroeconomic stability, which has been proven to stimulate growth and investment. Beside a constitutional requirement to balance the budget, Singapore's government strives to maintain a favorable balance of trade and a large supply of foreign reserves. In addition, because Singapore's economy is so open and therefore in danger of importing inflation from its trade partners, instead of relying on short-term interest rates as its monetary policy instrument, the Monetary Authority of Singapore conducts policy by managing a trade-weighted exchange rate index. This strategy minimizes both output volatility and inflation through manipulation of the exchange rate. Its strategy has been extremely successful, with inflation averaging around 2.5 percent over the past four decades, though Singapore experienced deflation of .4 percent in 2002.

Singapore's government has also been highly interventionist in labor markets – holding wages down to keep Singaporean manufacturing globally competitive – as well as in promoting education, job training and consumer saving. Even though the government limited wage increases and a strong labor supply existed because of a rapidly expanding workforce, real wages doubled between 1978 and 1991, and increased a further 31 percent from 1991 to 1997. This reflects the added demand for labor from an influx of foreign direct investment, general skill upgrading in the labor force, as well as recent high wage rigidity.

Extremely important to the sustainability of this successful macroeconomic cycle is the high rate of individual saving required by the Singaporean government. As high as 48 percent in the 1990s, the Singaporean government uses public savings to finance education and incentives to foreign investors, while at the same time ensuring that there will be no fiscal deficit. This has allowed both inflation and interest rates to remain low and the exchange rate competitive, underpinning economic growth "and for virtually all Singaporeans, allows higher living standards." A better standard of living, in turn, has justified to the populace the wage controls that the government imposes on labor markets.

Two Parallel Strategies

Since 1965, economic growth in Singapore has been fueled by two major business institutions: the multinational corporation (MNC) and the government linked company (GLC). With regard to the former, Singapore has aggressively courted foreign direct investment (FDI) from MNCs, and with enormous success. Since the implementation of the Pioneer Industries Ordinance of 1959, effective corporate tax rates on approved firms have been and still are as low as 4 percent, provided that the firm raises a minimum level of capital intended for research and development of new products within Singapore. FDI compared to GDP has risen from 5.3 percent in 1965 to 98.4 percent in 1998. Employment has also benefited immensely from such a huge FDI influx and attractive corporate tax rate, with foreign firms in 1998 employing 50.5 percent of workers in manufacturing, 29.1 percent in trade, and 25.7 percent in finance.

The other main actor in the Singaporean economy has been the government linked company. In May 1993, the government estimated that GLCs accounted for 60 percent of GDP, though more recent independent estimates have been closer to 20 or 30 percent. GLCs are a highly unusual hybrid of state and private enterprises. Unlike state-run companies in many countries, GLCs in Singapore have been generally well-managed and run much like private businesses, with a focus on bottom line performance. Also unlike many state-owned enterprises elsewhere, Singapore's GLCs are profitable and have not been used for social or employment generation purposes.

GLCs compete with private firms and MNCs, and in many cases, with each other. The companies are involved in a wide range of areas, including finance, telecommunications, transport and logistics, property, infrastructure and engineering, and utilities. In the past two decades, many of the most important GLCs, such as Singapore Airlines, Singapore Telecom and DBS Bank have been partially privatized through an IPO, though the government holding company Temasek still owns the companies' controlling stakes. Capital raised by such IPOs have allowed several GLCs to make foreign acquisitions, such as the acquisition of the Australian wireless company Optus in 2001 by SingTel and Singapore Airlines' purchase of half of the UK airline Virgin Atlantic in 2000. Since October 2003, in deals involving Singapore Telecom, Keppel Corp. and Singapore Technologies, Temasek has raised over US$ 2.8 billion, which the holding company has said will be put toward strategic regional acquisitions.
GLCs highlight the singularity of the Singaporean economic model—state run companies exist and compete against multinational corporations in one of the freest economies in the world. While Singapore has had much success with its two-pronged strategy of GLCs combined with FDI from MNCs, there are important criticisms of the approach, especially when looking toward the future. I will flesh these out, as well as Singapore's new strategy to sustain its rich-country status, in the last section. First, however, I will present a case study that outlines a successful relationship between Singapore, a GLC and an MNC with revenues about the size of Singapore's GDP—International Business Machines Corporation.

IBM Singapore Case Study

IBM has been an instrumental partner in Singapore's developmental ascendance, and has helped to get going a rather numerous agglomeration of IT companies located in the city-state. Maintaining a subsidiary on the island since the mid-1950s, IBM's Singapore office currently employs about 4,500 workers and has partnered frequently with Singaporean IT consulting firms, Singapore's government, as well as domestic hardware and software manufacturers. IBM has also made significant investments in Singapore's infrastructure, and it has structured relationships with Singaporean universities to train and recruit talent. Finally, IBM has been contracted by one of Singapore's most successful GLCs, DBS Bank, for IT outsourcing and consulting.

Partnerships with Companies: IBM has structured detailed partnerships with several domestic IT companies and Singapore subsidiaries of MNCs. Coinciding with the rise of small and medium business enterprises in Singapore (stimulated by the government), IBM has ramped up production of mid-range servers and storage devices in order to attract domestic resellers of IBM solutions. In 2003, for example, Singapore-based Digiland International Ltd. resold US$ 100 million-worth of IBM server and storage solutions to businesses in Singapore and five other countries in the region.

Additionally, in March 2004 IBM announced a partnership with Singapore Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd. to retool their 300mm Fab 7 Wafer manufacturing plant, which should lower costs of production and design of advanced components for IBM hardware solutions. Kevin Meyer, vice-president of Chartered's worldwide marketing, said that 40-50 Chartered engineers are currently visiting their counterparts at IBM's plant in New York to learn about the complex manufacturing processes associated with the components. "These engineers will return to Singapore by the third quarter of this year [July 2004] to transfer their expertise to the new 300mm Fab 7 wafer plant in Singapore," he said. Since the late 1990s, IBM has gone after many such partnerships in Singapore in order to take advantage of Singapore's tax incentives to locate research and development on the island. The benefit to Singapore, of course, has been skills upgrading and diffusion of advanced technology to companies based on the island.

In addition to partnerships with local hardware manufacturers and domestic IT resellers, IBM works with Singapore subsidiaries of MNCs such as SAP and Rand Worldwide to provide software solutions to local companies. Smaller regional MNCs like Genovate Solutions and Eclipse Computing have also been attracted to Singapore to form partnerships with IBM. Overall, IBM currently partners with sixteen foreign subsidiaries in Singapore on software development and IT consulting. With concern to hardware, IBM has partnered with Intel Corporation on hardware development and design at the National University of Singapore. Additionally, IBM worked with the Singapore Economic Development Board to convince hardware manufacturers Dell and Hitachi to relocated their Asia-Pacific regional headquarters to the island. IBM is one of the few companies in the world that can (and does) attract so many major companies/partners in its industry to the places in which it does a large amount of business. And from the list of prominent names above, it is clear that IBM has played an important role in the agglomeration of tech companies in Singapore.

Government Related Contracts, Initiatives and Investments: IBM has also made several significant investments in Singapore that have helped to attract business and talent to the country. The Singapore government, in turn, has contracted IBM for several important projects that have improved the country's infrastructure and stimulated research and development spending in the city-state.

First, IBM in 1996 initiated a deal with the Singaporean government to build an advanced internet network throughout the city to speed and simplify procurement for Singaporean suppliers. In a speech in late 1998, IBM CEO Louis Gerstner said, "Singapore is upping the ante in the competition for primacy among Asian seaports. They've put ten thousand suppliers online, cutting costs and cycle times. And the island expects to do $1 billion in Net-based commerce by the year 2001. Less than a year after the speech, IBM and Singapore collaborated again to upgrade the network IBM built to include multi-protocol label switching (MPLS), an internet standard which has become the "high-speed backbone" of research networks around the world. Furthermore, IBM's Emerging Technology Center in Singapore was contracted by the government to conduct research projects on advanced networking and applications technologies jointly with Singapore's Research and Education Network. This should lead to new developments in Internet utilization for Singaporean citizens and businesses in the future.

IBM has launched several of its own research and development initiatives in Singapore as well. In 2002, IBM invested US$ 22 million to found the IBM Institute for Business Value, which will help corporations "unlock business value by providing them with consultancy services." A team of fifty consultants worldwide have been placed under the umbrella of the institute, which has become IBM's regional hub for consulting services. Dr. Michael Loh, the Institute's Asia-Pacific leader, said that Singapore was chosen to be the location of the institute's headquarters over Tokyo and Hong Kong because of its "infrastructure, government and strategic location."

Also in 2002, IBM launched two business solution centers at the Funan IT Park in Singapore each at a cost of US$ 100,000. The centers are IBM's first in the region, providing "small businesses the platform to view live e-business and traditional business solutions in addition to providing a hands-on experience prior to them investing in the software and hardware." The centers have helped to popularize IBM's products among technology startups in Singapore, while at the same time giving Singaporean small businesses the ability to better gauge expected returns on their IT investments.

To help recruit talent, IBM and Singapore Management University (SMU) teamed up last year to create the IBM Business Consulting Services Solution Center at SMU's School of Information Systems, which will provide incoming students with "insights on how industry specific business processes and enabling software applications come together." Part of a strategic partnership between IBM and SMU, the solution center will allow IBM to tap into SMU's talented pool of MBA's whose main focus is information technology. Additionally, IBM will be able to exchange ideas with SMU faculty about various software, hardware and consulting concepts. Overall, this partnership should give IBM an advantage over its competitors in recruitment of young talent in IT consulting and services, as well as access to experienced hires by tapping SMU researchers and professors.

Perhaps IBM's most important relationship, however, has been with the Singaporean GLC, DBS Bank. In a US$ 679 million outsourcing project, DBS contracted IBM for ten years (starting in November 2002) "to consolidate and enhance DBS' data centers in Singapore and Hong Kong… and provide systems management disciplines across the bank." As the centerpiece of the relationship, IBM will build several state-of-the-art IT computing facilities in Singapore to improve processing power, security and back-up capabilities of DBS' IT operations. Furthermore, IBM will absorb 500 DBS IT staff from both countries, with the guarantee of comparable compensation and role over the life of the contract. Both sides of the deal felt that "joining an IT service provider will broaden the career development and opportunities for DBS' IT staff." So far, the transaction has been a huge success, with DBS saving US$ 15 million last year and with savings projections at US$ 35 million for 2004 and 2005.

With all of IBM's partnerships and investments in Singapore over the past fifty years, it is clear that there must be something special about such a small island amongst a sea of giants with much larger domestic markets. Why has IBM chosen to conduct business from Singapore, often exporting products to nearby markets instead of producing directly in those countries? The most important reasons, I would argue, are: The best infrastructure in the region (IBM helped to build it, after all); extreme economic stability and openness; government incentives for research and development of new products; and lastly, access to a concentrated, qualified labor source at competitive prices.

However, as lower-cost activities move to countries with lower-cost labor, there is a question as to whether Singapore's relationships with manufacturers (like IBM's hardware division) will continue. In response to rampant offshoring to its low-cost neighbors, Singapore's government has recognized that its developmental model will not be sustainable in the future. To keep the Singaporean labor force competitive, then, the government has espoused creating a knowledge economy that will make Singapore into the "talent capital" of Asia. Through even more generous incentives, the government will try to spark radical innovation in the private sector, a feat that will be hard to accomplish in a country that has developed paternalistically through input efficiency and well-run state-owned enterprises. I address Singapore's attempts to sustain its rich-country status in the future through this knowledge-based economic strategy in the next section.

Life-Long Employment Versus Life-Long Employability

"An awareness is sinking in among the island's ruling elite that a model that turned a swamp into a metropolis may not work as well when it comes to turning the metropolis into a citadel of the 'knowledge economy,'" reported The Economist in November 2002. Since the Asian financial crisis in 1997, as mentioned, Singapore has been losing business to fast-growing lower-cost economies such as Thailand, Malaysia, India and China. In looking to move toward a knowledge economy to avert these threats, Singapore has opened itself up even further to trade and reallocated labor resources from "value-adding" manufacturing to "value-creating" services that are less cost-sensitive. Additionally, Singapore is focusing on its comparative advantage in infrastructure, uncorrupt rule of law and contract enforcement to convince MNCs to locate their regional headquarters in Singapore. Indeed, Singapore has already made headway on all three components of its knowledge-based globalization strategy.

With regard to openness, Singapore signed a free trade agreement with the United States last year that became effective January 1, 2004. Just as important, it is the only country in the world with which Japan has negotiated a free trade agreement. Singapore is also a leader in ASEAN, a free trade zone now including twelve countries in the region and will hopefully grow to include a free trade agreement with Australia next year and with China by 2012. Singapore has gone far in publicizing its desired image to be the window for the West to a prosperous Asia, and ahead of the FTA with the US, the number of new US firms doing business in Singapore tripled in 2003. Frank Lavin, the US ambassador to Singapore, said the FTA "has had a dramatic effect on the US corporate mindset because it was a very strong statement about the ease of doing business in Singapore."

Increasing openness will surely improve Singapore's ability to compete as Asia's most global city, but much more important is how Singapore will face the challenge of its low-cost neighbors in both the short and long term. Already, this challenge has spurred the Singaporean government to create a Ministry of Manpower (http://www.mom.gov.sg) and blueprints called Industry21 and Manpower21, which propose to diversify Singapore's companies and labor force into manufacturing-related services such as research and development, product design, process engineering, logistics and marketing as well as to develop Singapore as a hub for "exportable" services. Industry21 targets growth sectors such as electronics, chemicals, life sciences, engineering, communications and media, logistics, healthcare, education, headquarters, banking and finance, and business and professional services. Its main thrust, along with that of Manpower21, is that diversification of Singapore's economy to less cost-sensitive, manufacturing-related services industries should avoid a hollowing out of the country's manufacturing sector. This will be accomplished through the systematic upgrading of the Singaporean workforce and a push toward radical innovation as opposed to more cost sensitive, value-added manufacturing. But what specific programs have been and will be implemented?

Through the Ministry of Manpower, the government has already established a US$ 1 billion "Technopreneurship Investment Fund" to help high technology start-ups obtain funding as well as to develop the venture-capital industry in Singapore. The government has also introduced a 50 percent tax exemption policy on income resulting from stock options gains in order to encourage greater use of stock options for employee compensation. In line with the remunerative practices of innovative tech companies like those of Silicon Valley, the government favors stock options because they pay employees for performance and align managers' interests with that of the company's shareholders. If managers and employees work together as a cohesive unit, they will be rewarded with a higher stock price and options that can be exercised profitably. If the stock price goes down, however, the options expire worthless. While there has been recent criticism of using stock options as opposed to real equity ownership as incentives (because in bear markets, options can quickly become worthless through no fault of the company's workers, destroying the whole incentive structure), they can often be used effectively as tools to reward employees that make their companies market-driven and adaptive to customer needs.

In addition, the Singaporean government promotes lifelong learning for lifelong employability—as opposed to lifetime employment—in the workforce. As Matthias Yao, Deputy Secretary-General of the Singapore National Trades Union Congress puts it:

"The boat we are trying to build in Singapore is lifelong employability. Not lifelong employment in one company, because that is fast disappearing. The company one works for may break up, relocate or outsource its production. We believe that the best guarantee of having a job is not by fighting to get better pay and conditions, but by arming our workers with skills that can fit them for better jobs with better pay and better conditions."

The Singaporean government has given a US$ 117 million grant to the labor movement that Yao represents for skills redevelopment programs to minimize structural unemployment during the country's transition to a knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, subsidies are given to encourage interested degree and diploma holders to enroll in courses and make a career-switch to information technology. The government has also allocated funding for Singapore executives to enroll in courses that will train them in international marketing and business development, and place Singapore university graduates in internationally-minded foreign and domestic companies operating in Singapore.

In addition to efforts to develop the local workforce, the government aggressively pursues foreign talent, including professionals from China and India, in order to supplement the city-state's supply of qualified labor. "Contact Singapore" offices have been set up in major cities abroad as an outreach effort to foreign talent. Companies may also claim tax benefits in relation to expenses incurred to bring foreign talent to the city-state. There are presently about 80,000 foreign managerial and professional staff working in Singapore, which is about 4 percent of a workforce of two million.

As stated, all of these efforts are being marshaled to remake Singapore into the talent capital of Asia. However, if that talent is overpriced, then outsourcing will still be a danger. Therefore, the government has tried to address the sensitive topic of wage restructuring during economic downturns, which should help (hopefully) to cushion future outsourcing out of Singapore. As of January 30, 2004, the Ministry of Manpower has created a plan to incorporate a more flexible wage system into the economy that gives more job security to employees and stronger competitiveness to companies by increasing the variable component of monthly and yearly wages. Variable pay as a proportion of salary will be 30 percent for rank-and-file employees, 40 percent for middle management and 50 percent for senior management, as their performance is most inherently linked to company success. The new report emphasizes a "we're all in this together" approach to wage restructuring, pointing out that jobs will only be outsourced in greater numbers if wages remain rigid and companies remain uncompetitive on a global scale due to labor costs.

The Singaporean labor force, however, has been attuned to the idea of variable pay for some time now, and is realistic about job prospects. Another report by the Manpower Ministry that came out in April 2004 (based on an August 2003 survey of 2,500 Singaporean workers) reveals that "a good majority - 72 percent - accepted that pay cuts could happen if their company was not doing well." About six in ten of those surveyed agreed "that companies may need to lay off workers to survive increasing business competition," though, of course, the better-educated and higher-skilled respondents were much more likely to accept this. Despite these statements, however, the jobs outlook is not so bad; 73 percent of those surveyed expected to keep their jobs in the coming twelve months. Nonetheless, the current outsourcing scare combined with variable compensation incentives will, with any luck, prompt
Singaporeans to take advantage of government funding to upgrade their skills. Not only would this aid the government's push toward a knowledge-based economy, but retraining will also help to achieve job security through lifelong employability rather than one-company dependence.

What else will Singapore need to do to sustain its rich-country status in the future? In accordance with a more knowledge-based entrepreneurial focus, the state will have to allow more political space for free speech and an independent media. Presently, local laws limit individual shareholding in Singaporean media companies to 3 percent without government approval for a larger stake. This policy has effectively given the government a veto over foreign media ownership and prevents the growth of an independent media industry in Singapore. Overall, one must question whether it is possible to spark private sector innovation in Singapore without also triggering out-of-the-box strategies to change Singapore's paternalistic political structure. More important to ask, however, is that given its successful paternalist history, whether the Singaporean government will be able to spark private sector innovation at all. It may be that the paternalism practiced so successfully in the past in Singapore could come back to haunt the island if too much is gambled on radical innovation and a successful private sector does not take hold.

Either way, if Singapore's government wants to have a chance at effectively implementing its strategy, GLCs will have to be scaled down so that they do not crowd out private sector investment. Over-diversified GLCs such as Keppel Corp., SembCorp and Singapore Technologies should follow the lead of Singapore Airlines, DBS group, SingTel and Singapore Power, all of which have concentrated on a core activity in which they can become a global leader. By privatizing non-core assets, GLCs can raise funds to acquire similarly focused companies throughout the region (as discussed), allowing Singaporean companies to ride the low-cost comparative advantages of Thailand, India and China as well. This could further entrench Singapore as a key node in a globally and regionally integrated economic network and could give Singapore an irreplaceable role as a first-mover into these fast-developing economies.

In my opinion, all of the steps being taken by Singapore in response to a new given strategic situation constitute a successful strategy for maintaining its rich-country developed status over the long term. While an extremely open yet state-dominated economy was the right developmental strategy for its primary development, Singapore must move toward a competitive, flexible, value-creating society willing to take significant economic and political risks to spark innovation and productivity growth. Singapore must also continue to take advantage of its strong infrastructure and uncorrupt rule of law while also coordinating GLC and private sector expansion to the regional tigers and giants like China and India. With this strategy and a significant investment in Singapore's human capital, I believe the country will sustain its privileged status as a successful developer for the foreseeable future and beyond.


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