The final stop on The D&O Diary’s Asian Tour was the island city-state of Singapore. Located only about 60 miles north of the equator, Singapore is a sun-drenched commercial center that has managed despite its slight size to become one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
Prior to boarding my flight to Singapore, I purchased a bottle of water, drank about half of it, and stuck the unfinished bottle in a side pocket of my backpack. As I boarded the flight, I stuck the backpack in the overhead compartment. I guess the lid popped off of the water bottle, and all of the remaining water spilled out. Now, if you are about to spend four hours sitting next to a total stranger, it is a very poor idea to start things off by dumping about eight ounces of cold water on them. I was vigorously cursed out in a language I was unable to identify, and all of my apologies were disdained -- even though during the course of the flight it became apparent that my damp seat mate spoke English fluently. Fortunately, no permanent harm was done, and this episode, though embarrassing, did not otherwise affect my Singapore visit.
The whole country of Singapore covers an area only slightly larger than Chicago, but with double the population. It is also one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with the highest percentage of U.S. dollar millionaires of any country in the world (15.5% of all households). It is a global trade, financial and manufacturing center. As a result, and despite its equatorial location, it has a tidy, orderly, prosperous feel.If you were suddenly dropped there, and if it were not for the cars driving on the right-hand side, you would probably guess you were in a particularly well-off suburb of Miami. I suspect that most Americans would find Singapore a particularly comfortable place to visit.
As far as I can tell, the basic institutional unit in Singapore is the shopping mall. There not only seems to be an endless supply of upscale malls, but they all seem to be busy as well. Singapore’s two casinos have only been open for less than four years, but, flush with Chinese gamblers, Singapore is already a larger gambling market than Las Vegas. The Marina Sands Singapore Casino, which sort of like a massive, three-hulled cruise ship tipped on its end, with a gigantic skateboard stretching across the towers, dominates the downtown Marina district.
My stay in Singapore was relatively brief, much shorter than my visits to my other Asian destinations, but I was there long enough to get a strong sense of the essential commercial energy of the place. Location is one of the country’s natural advantages; its proximity to India and China and to the emerging economies of South East Asia makes it the natural hub for regional commerce. As a result, the city is extraordinarily cosmopolitan. At the PLUS event that was the reason for my visit, there were attendees not only from Singapore itself, but a wide variety of other countries, including India, Malaysia, Thailand, Mauritius, and United Arab Emirates, among many others.
One of the literal high points on my brief visit was a ride on the Singapore Flyer, which, depending on who you ask, may be the highest ferris wheel in the world. It does in any event provide some astonishings views of the city, of the Singapore harbor, and of Indonesia to the South and Malaysia to the North.
In addition to the climate, economy and atmosphere, another reason to visit Singapore is its food. I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed so many interesting meals in such a short amount of time. Among many other local specialties I enjoyed is rendang, a spicy meat dish with a lot of kick, mee siam, a spicy seafood noodle dish, and tandoori murgh (yogurt marinated chicken). A particular high point for me was the opportunity to sample a rich diversity of local dishes while sitting on the verandah of the Singapore Cricket Club, a local landmark, as the guest of my good friend, Aruno Rajaratnam, whose hospitality helped make my Singapore visit so enjoyable.
One particularly interesting area to explore and to eat is Holland Village, a small enclave of shops, restaurants and bars in the western end of the urban center. There is a lively, street-café feel to the area, but the main attraction is the several indoor food courts where you can quickly sample a wide-variety of regional foods. On a warm, sunny afternoon, it was a very pleasant to sit in a shady café drinking Tiger Beer and watching the incredibly diverse local populace stroll by.
The PLUS event in Singapore was extraordinarily successful. The event was held at The American Club and it drew a standing-room only crowd. As I noted above, many of the attendees had traveled a long way just to attend. It is clear that there is a great deal of interest among the insurance professionals in South East Asia in the networking and educational opportunities that PLUS affords. It was a privilege for me to be able to address and to meet so many Asian insurance industry professionals. I congratulate the PLUS leadership for taking the initiative in launching the Asian events, and I congratulate the local committee that organized the events, particularly Aruno Rajaratnam and Shasi Gangadharan. I can only hope that the two events this past week in Hong Kong and Singapore are just the first of many PLUS Events in Asia. I also hope that PLUS will continue to offer our Asian industry colleagues the opportunity to become a part of our professional community. On a personal note, it was personally gratifying to learn how many of my industry colleagues in South East Asia are loyal readers of The D&O Diary.
What I Learned in Asia: The world is incredibly large, rich and diverse. But as large as the world is, it is still possible for me to start the day in Singapore and have dinner at my home in Ohio. Modern technology and transport have shrunk the world. Nor is this merely a geographic phenomenon. I found in my business meetings during my travels that my Asian counterparts are dealing with many of the same challenges and issues as I am every day.
However, one important difference is the pace of economic activity in Asia, which is far beyond anything I have ever experienced. In many ways, business growth in the developed economies all too often is about taking existing business away from competitors. In Asia, there is true, organic economic growth. The future opportunities in the growing economies of South East Asia and in the newly developing countries, like, for example, Cambodia and even Myanmar, are enormous.
One particular regret I have about my Asian trip is that I was not able to take any of my kids with me to see what I saw. I think it is going to be incredibly important for our future work force to understand what is happening in Asia and in the larger global economy. Today and increasingly in the future, our young people will be competing not only with their counterparts down the street but also with their counterparts on the opposite side of the world. We all need to recognize that the global counterparts are extraordinarily motivated and are also positioning themselves to compete in an economy that they fully understand is global.
Our Asian counterparts are training their work force to be adaptable and to be able to function in a variety of languages and cultures. To be sure, one advantage we have in the United States is that the rest of the world is racing to learn our language. But at the same time, I fear that we have been too slow to recognize that is not going to be enough simply to expect the rest of the world to speak English. Our future work force will have to be culturally adaptable. Our chronic cultural parochialism could put our work force at a substantial disadvantage in the global economic competition.
However, if the increasingly global economy presents a challenge, it also represents an opportunity. That is, there may be an opportunity to participate in the developing economies’ growth – which could be a positive spin on the possibility that future growth and many of the future jobs will in Asia, rather than at home. It will under any circumstances be critically important for our future work force here to be able to function globally.
An additional note is that Asia is far from a block or economic unit. To the contrary, cultural differences, natural geographic and resource advantages, as well as differences in political and legal systems, will have an enormous impact on how different Asian countries will fare going forward. To cite but one example of this, it will be critically important to see which countries strike the appropriate balance between the ability of economic participants to extract profits and the ability of those participants to shift “external” costs onto their society. For example, in China, the willingness to allow businesses to prosper while society chokes on the fumes ultimately could undercut the country’s long run success.
One of the side effects of the wealth creation that has followed economic development in Asia is the emergence of a rising middle class. With the growth of the middle class has come a convergence around a common set of life styles, living patterns and even values. At its most superficial, this convergence includes the emergence of global brands with nearly universal appeal. But it also includes rising expectations about housing, education, and health care, as well as about the free flow of information and ideas.
As a result of this convergence, it is not just technology and transport that have shrunk the world. Rather, it is an increasingly shared set of experiences, expectations and aspirations that characterize ever greater parts of the world. The growing global economy may include both challenges and opportunities; but at its most basic level, it may mean that we live in a more integrated world. Although a global economy seems to mean global competition, there will also be possibilities for global collaboration within a more integrated world.
I find the possibilities for global collaboration the most interesting of all. Indeed, if there is a common thread through all of the business meetings on my trip, it is the common assumption that collaboration presents the greatest promise, both in and with Asia. Throughout my Asian travels, I was struck with how enthusiastic everyone I met was about finding ways to collaborate. I left Asia with three hopes; one, that I might return again soon;two, that the apparently extensive prospects for collaboration in Asia might quickly bear fruit; and three, that I am able to stay in close touch with my many new Asian friends.
More Singapore Pictures:
The Marina Sands Casino, Singapore:
Looking out to the Singapore Strait (from the Singapore Flyer):
A Country of Shopping Malls: