The Singapore experience

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The Singapore experience

In the lead-up to the biannual Singapore-Africa Business Forum which takes place at the end of August, Anver Versi was among a group of African journalists invited to visit the island nation. Here is his report.

I was among a group of African journalists invited by Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry for  a whistle-stop tour of this tiny country that packs a gigantic economic wallop.

The African Journalist Visit Programme (AJVP) has become a regular feature preceding the biannual Africa-Singapore Business Forum, which this time takes place on 28-29 August.

The idea is to invite journalists from targeted African countries and introduce them to the political and philosophical underpinnings of what is still regarded as the world’s ‘miracle economy’ and to meet with the top echelon of various companies that either do business with Africa or are seeking to do so.

In short, the aim of the AJVP is to reach out to African governments and entrepreneurs via the media, and whet their appetite for what Singapore can offer to Africa in terms of innovative services and consultancies – and encourage attendance at the Singapore-Africa Business Forum, where hopefully interest can be converted into deals.

The first Business Forum was held in 2010 and hosted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry through International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, its trade, investment and ‘thought-leadership’ arm. IE Singapore became Enterprise Singapore in April this year following the merger of IE Singapore with SPRING, which focused on supporting start-ups and SMEs and helping companies achieve international standards.

Since its slightly hesitant start in 2010, the Forum has delivered excellent returns, attracting over 2,000 business leaders from 30 countries to explore partnerships with Singapore companies and agencies.

According to Kelvin Tan, secretary-general of the Africa South-East Asia Chamber of Commerce, total bilateral trade between Singapore and Africa stands at $6.85bn while the stock of direct investments in the continent are around $18.5bn.

The steady maturing of relations between Singapore and Africa has been a source of considerable satisfaction for us at IC Publications. We were involved with the Forum from the start and I made my first eye-opening visit to the island nation as the editor of African Business magazine, as I was then.

Astonishing first visit

I vividly recall my astonishment that accompanied that first visit. The degree of development, the innovative solutions to what were essentially developing world problems and the efficiency that pervaded virtually all sectors of society that I witnessed was astounding.

It was difficult to believe that Singapore gained its independence from British rule only in 1963 and immediately joined Malaysia as a modus vivendi since it had virtually no resources of its own, and faced a bleak future as the various ethnicities that comprised its population squared off to scramble for whatever little was available.

It was expelled from Malaysia two years later and found itself isolated in the Malacca Straits, left to sink or swim. It decided to swim and set into motion one of the greatest transformations in modern history. In 1965, Singapore’s GDP per capita was just $500; in 2017, this had increased more than 100-fold, reaching $56,000. 

It has achieved this through various stratagems although everyone, from government ministers to taxi drivers, will tell you that the nation’s road to success has been paved by investing heavily in its human capital – “our only resource”, they will add.

While there can be no doubt that Singapore’s ‘human capital’, if one is to use that phrase, is of the highest quality, the country seized on the only advantage it had going for it, its strategic location, in what was soon to develop as the world’s busiest waterway, funnelling an ever-increasing flow of products from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Tiger economies and of course the economically rampant China to the rest of the world.

Today, Singapore has just marginally lost its rank as the world’s largest transhipment hub to Shanghai; nevertheless, PSA Singapore handled an astonishing 33.35m container TEUs in 2017, is one of the world’s largest refrigerated container ports and is connected to over 600 ports worldwide.

On a tour of the port facilities, we were told that even the largest container vessels can be offloaded in half a day and that a ship enters or leaves the port every three to four minutes. But a new mega port is being constructed at Tuas with an eventual capacity of over 50m TEUs. It is expected to be fully operational by 2025 and will be largely ‘intelligent’ i.e. run by artificial intelligence.

Exceptional public housing

But there is a lot more to Singapore than the nuts and bolts of its economy. It is a society founded on finding solutions for what often seem intractable developing world problems. It is this aspect that makes Singapore so very relevant to Africa’s development needs. In many cases, it has faced the same issues we struggle with daily in Africa and has found solutions. More to the point, these solutions are both transferable and scaleable.

For example, the lack of viable water sources on the island has meant that Singapore has had to depend on importing water from Malaysia and develop unorthodox methods of water collection and management. In the process, it has become a world leader in water management.

The densely populated city currently receives more than half of its water supply from rainwater collection, recycled water and desalination. It has one of the world’s largest desalination plants. It is working towards becoming fully self-sufficient in the near future.

Our journalist visit coincided with the Singapore International Water week and we visited the ZWEEC booth at the Sands Expo and Convention centre.

ZWEEC’s intelligent bio-monitoring system – AquaTEC – serves as a crucial first-line assessment of drinking water safety. It detects irregularities in drinking water supply. Each system performs 24/7 real-time, remote monitoring and is capable of event detection within 15 minutes.

Providing safe drinking water in Africa’s burgeoning cities is one of the biggest utility challenges of our times. The technology on view here seems to be the ideal solution for this essential service. AquaTEC technology has been exported  to Australia, China, Taiwan and the Middle East.

Our next visit was to Surbana Jurong. On my previous visits to Singapore, this was always one of my favourite stopping off places, particularly meeting Louis Tay, who headed their African activity.

Surbana is one of the largest consultancies in Asia when it comes to urban and industrial design but of particular interest for me has been its contribution to public housing in Singapore.

Few issues are as crucial to Africa as the provision of affordable and liveable housing. As the pace of urbanisation increases, planning of cities should be the top priority to prevent the overflowing slums and atrocious living conditions we find in so many of our urban centres.

Cities that are not planned grow into unwieldy eyesores that incubate both physical and social diseases such as crime and communal violence. Children growing up in these environments have little or no chance to make it in terms of education or future careers.

The quality of public housing in Singapore always amazes the visitor and must rank as some of the very best the world has to offer. Tay introduced me to the philosophy behind public housing and explained that it provides much more than living space; properly planned and executed, it provides a lifestyle that can be very positive.

It also reflects the relationship between the state and the people. Rows and rows of ugly, grey, box- like structures of the Soviet era for example, typified how the state viewed its citizens. The class-based terraced housing in many UK towns reflect the sharp class divide in that country.

For Tay, it has always been essential to create a positive environment around public housing, with plenty of green spaces and communal areas where various income and ethnic groups could come together. “It helps create national unity and identity and gives citizens a sense of their own value,” he once told me.

Surbana is involved in various projects in Africa, including the next phase of the city of Kigali – perhaps Africa’s cleanest and most attractive city.

The best airport in the world

We next visited Changi Airport to look at their transport and logistics services. Changi is already one of the leading aviation hubs in Asia. It handles over 2.12m tonnes of cargo annually, with transhipment accounting for over half this volume. Most of the handling is automated, virtually eliminating errors in dispatch. The efficiency and speed with which the system works impressed all the journalists, many of whom had their own tales of woe at African airports.

Again, the systems perfected at Changi can be transferable to Africa and would make a world of difference to the movement of goods into and out of the continent.

In January, I had been invited by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to visit the Singapore Air Show and also tour the airport facilities. Changi has been voted the best airport in the world several years running and watching the effort that goes on behind the scenes explains why.

It is essentially a different mind-set. The airport authority does not consider passengers and their goods as so much statistical throughput but as human beings who are in what is very often a ‘stressful transition’ from home to their destination. At Changi, they have set out to make this transition as pleasant as possible.

The result is that they have gardens and flower-beds, cinemas, relaxing areas, children’s playgrounds and an ambience more in keeping with a leisure park than an airport. Despite this, the movement of passengers is swift and sure.

Business roundtable

Our next assignment was a business roundtable with companies involved in agro-processing. Agro-processing has been identified as the surest means to achieving greater industrialisation for Africa, so this meeting was of particular importance to the journalists.

Rahul Somani, head of commodities at Tolaram, which has a massive presence in West Africa through its Indomie band of foods and is now involved in building Nigeria’s deepest sea port at Lekki, Lagos, pointed out that Africa’s food imports will swell to over $100bn by 2050 while its food production has remained static. He suggested that farming should be seen a lucrative career to attract the youth rather than as a backward step, as it is considered now.

Olam’s Venkatramani Srivathsan, or Sri as we have come to know him over the years, ran us through the commodity giant’s activities in Africa, where it deals with 2.5m smallholders. “Every third chocolate is made from Olam cocoa,” he told us, “every fifth cup of coffee is from Olam coffee.” Sri has always been very bullish about Africa’s agricultural prospects but says it is essential that government should keep out of business and let it get on with producing and distributing. (See New African, July 2018 issue for his article.)

He added that part of the company philosophy is that whatever it replenishes into the soil must be greater than neutral in order to continue increasing productivity.

Lawrence Chan of Asiatic Agriculture Industries explained that his company focuses on ‘from seed to harvest’ crop protection. It provides inputs and works on crop rotation and harvest management.

One of the more intriguing contributors was Connie Kwan of Aaist Chocolate. The company, founded in 2003, is the first enterprise in Singapore to make chocolate. It now produces a substantial quantity, mainly for businesses such as bakeries, but demand is growing by the day, she told us. In order to ensure security of supply, the company intends to enter into joint ventures in Africa’s principal cocoa producing countries, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

Another interesting encounter was with a clutch of innovative companies. Transfer-To, a fintech firm set up very recently, aims to take the M-Pesa concept global, allowing customers to transfer and receive payments from anywhere in the world.

Alex Choy of ECNA demonstrated a revolutionary road-making system, especially suitable for unpaved rural roads, that dispenses with traditional road building techniques and yet provides a durable road surface that can withstand rain and other vagaries of the weather at a fraction of the cost – ideal for our roads.

Dinuke Ranasinghe of Arcardier showed us how we could build up an internet marketplace in “five minutes” and thereby perhaps launch a career that in time could rival Amazon or Alibaba! There should be plenty of takers for this in Africa.

Debbie Lin of Ascent Solutions discussed how her company’s tracking solution, which allow operators to pin-point the location as well as movements of their goods, trucks and other carriers, is already in use in Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania and Namibia. Their system can also monitor temperatures in refrigerated trucks.

Mik Yap of Crimson Logic, which is already present in several African countries including Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar, Botswana, Rwanda and Namibia specialises in digitalising a slew of processes and documentation, from customs forms to legal briefs, saving an enormous amount of time.

In addition to visiting the port, we were given a tour of Sembcorp Offshore Marine Engineering at their enormous shipyard. Sembcorp makes the massive oil and gas rigs as well as the floating production and storage and offloading ships that ply the offshore oil fields of Africa. It also makes tankers and carries out ship repairs.

We also visited the perfectly appointed luxury apartment hotels operated by Ascott Orchard, who are in the process of setting up operations in Lagos and Accra, and enjoyed a tour of the Straits Times newspaper offices.

We were entertained to a delightful dinner by the Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, Dr Maliki Osman, and later had a dialogue with Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, Dr Koh Poh Koon. These meetings highlighted the importance the country gives to its African outreach.

Finally, a word of appreciation to our long-suffering but always genial escorts, Suzhen Zheng, Valerie Yuen, Nur Iman Aris, Bridget Shoo and Hidayah Nur, all from the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

In parting and having visited Singapore several times, my suggestion to the organisers of the Forum is that the journalists’ visit should be timed for one week before the Forum and for the journalists to then stay over to cover the Forum itself, which in the past has suffered from lack of coverage in the African media. NA

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Written by Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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