Thursday, Mar. 03, 2011

Strategic Singapore

For decades, Singapore has been tackling the growing pains of a booming Asian city. Fearful that it will become overrun with vehicles, the government has damped demand by making them frightfully expensive. The price of a BMW 320i sedan, for example, is around $140,000, more than three times its average U.S. sticker price, in part because a buyer has to fork out about $55,000 for a "certificate of entitlement." To lessen its dependence on water piped in from its sometimes prickly neighbor Malaysia, the city-state has made its gutters, drains and rivulets a vast basin to catch rainfall. To curb runaway real estate prices, the government recently slapped higher taxes on speculators who try to flip properties and placed limits on loan amounts for second homes.

These kinds of policies would be denounced as antigrowth or intrusive in the U.S. In Singapore, they represent part of an almost scientific approach to growth. Last year, Singapore's economy grew 14.5%. Direct foreign investment increased 123%, to $37.4 billion. As the country attempts to lift its population by a fifth over the next two decades, from 5.08 million to 6 million, it is linking with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to devise ways to manage its expansion — knowledge it plans to export to other cities.

Singapore is a proponent of clustering — attracting an entire industry segment so it builds on itself — and has made money and media two of its priorities. As for the former, Singapore is rapidly becoming the Switzerland of Asia even as the Switzerland of Europe clamps down on its banks, which were running afoul of U.S. tax law. Singapore, while a signatory to international banking covenants, has attracted billions of offshore dollars into its banking system, in part by offering Swiss-like confidentiality. Near its airport sits FreePort, where the wealthy can store, buy and sell artworks and other precious items tax-free, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, companies are renting space in Mediapolis, a "media ecosystem," as the government calls it, that broke ground Feb. 11. It will include digital production and broadcast facilities and soundstages for content creators, building on an existing animation-industry cluster. Nearby are two other developments, Fusionopolis and Biopolis, which are hubs for engineering and biomedical clusters. Singapore has also recently attracted companies like Procter & Gamble, which is building a $250 million innovation center.

This projected growth is going to be a handful to manage, so Singapore has turned itself into a laboratory, teaming with MIT to form the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) center to examine the "future of urban mobility" as well as other growth issues. Its purpose? "To study how cities work and how they can work better," says Rohan Abeyaratne, director of the center. Funded by Singapore's National Research Foundation, SMART has drawn nearly 600 researchers.

"Smart apps," downloaded onto commuters' mobile phones, will be the first fruits of the center's research. That's already happening in other cities, but making the lives of commuters easier is only a part of Singapore's plan. As it has done with water conservation — a clutch of innovative Singapore-based companies in that field are doing business in China and the Middle East — Singapore aims to profit from its growing expertise in urban mobility by exporting the apps to traffic-crippled cities like Bangkok, Mumbai and New York.

"They [Singapore] see an enormous potential market in the future for urban transportation solutions," says Amedeo Odoni, the leader of the MIT-Singapore urban-mobility team and a professor of engineering at the university. "The game plan is to become one of the originators of ideas for China, India and the rest of the world. It's a smart strategy."

Singapore is even shedding its fearsomely dowdy reputation. The city that banned chewing gum has become more liberal in its approach to art and culture and has allowed two multibillion-dollar gambling resorts to be built. Just don't expect Las Vegas — style decadence. In Singapore, even the fun is well managed.