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Can we learn from the success of Singapore?

The tiny city-state has outperformed its neighbours because it has vision and discipline, precisely the things we lack in fractious, divided Thailand

Singapore is a city-state the size of Phuket. It has no natural resources, but since it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has become a leader on the global economic stage, thanks mainly to vision and adherence to policy. Singapore's development philosophy is manifested in three giant investment projects that have taken shape over the past five years.

One is the US$3-billion Shell Eastern Petrochemicals Complex, which is now Royal Dutch Shell's biggest petrochemical facility. Singapore attracted the investment with a series of preparations.

Upon realising that it could not depend solely on trade, Singapore created an artificial island, called Jurong, to support manufacturing activities. Shell and numerous other foreign corporations have plants there. The Economic Development Board worked out the best policies to attract foreign investment. It is the leading government agency responsible for planning and executing strategies to enhance Singapore's position as a global business centre and thus develop the economy. Other government agencies cooperated on the provision of land, labour, infrastructure and incentives for training. Singapore also promised to expand its underground storage facilities for chemicals and petrochemicals.

A similar approach was replicated when the country gave the go-ahead for a huge casino-and-leisure complex, Marina Bay Sands, which required an investment above $3 billion. The Las Vegas Sands was given a beautiful parcel on Marina Bay with views of the sea and downtown.

Even more complex planning was required to ensure the success of the $4-billion Marina Bay Financial Centre completed this year.

Land reclamation near the new downtown area started decades ago, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has come up with an exact plan for how the Marina Bay development should progress over the next five decades. Only minor changes can be made to the Master Plan after it is reviewed every 10 years.

As part of the overall plan, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and other government agencies are working on tax and other regulatory measures to lure international companies and talent. This is partly supported by low taxation for corporations and individuals.

About 30,000 people work in the two developments at Marina Bay, aside from indirect jobs in related industries. With a population of only 5.3 million and without natural resources, Singapore nevertheless sees a constant stream of revenue from financial services, tourism and exports in electronics manufacturing and machinery. Another big advantage is that Singapore now boasts one of the world's largest seaports.

Despite its much longer history, Thailand's per-capita income was only one-fifth of Singapore's in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. In part this can be attributed to the absence of a non-partisan vision for the future and the inability to adhere to a development policy that puts the nation first. While Singapore is now among the high-income nations, Thailand is still struggling to climb out of a middle-income morass.

If Thailand is ever to catch up with Singapore, a change in attitude is essential. Thai politicians and citizens must come to terms with their differences and set a course, as Singapore has done, based on a non-partisan vision - entirely for the sake of the nation. To achieve that, laws must be made clear and fair to all. If we can achieve that, we should not be swayed from the goal of matching Singapore's success, come what may.

This must be done, and quickly, because the world moves fast and does not wait for laggards.


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