My worries about Singapore

Singapore is a well-run place by world standards, and has perhaps the world’s highest quality bureaucracy, yet right now the country faces a somewhat menacing constellation of silent risks, none of their own making:

1. It is possible that the role of the United States in the Pacific Ocean is rewritten rather suddenly.  This could come about through either a Trump presidency, or a successful Chinese attempt to grab more in the South China Sea.  Can you imagine a Singapore that had to court Japan and India rather than relying on the United States for protection?  In this same world Japan is probably more militarized than in the status quo, and possibly even a nuclear power.

2. Singapore sovereign wealth funds and related institutions have been pulling in high returns since the 1970s.  Yet the opportunities in both China and Singapore’s own real estate just aren’t there any more.  They would be very lucky to pull in four percent a year looking forward.  While fiscal risk is minimal, this will crimp expansion plans, especially if Singapore ends up needing to spend more on national defense.

3. It seems increasing pressure is being brought to bear on the Chinese currency yet again.  China would like to lower rates to stimulate its economy, and the Fed is likely to raise rates at least once more this year.  There is surely a chance that the renminbi simply snaps due to capital outflow.  During the Asian currency crisis, the Singaporean dollar fell about twenty percent as a side effect of the turmoil elsewhere.  Yet now China is much bigger than South Korea + Thailand + Indonesia were in 1997.  Furthermore Singapore is much more of a financial and clearinghouse center.  How insulated is Singapore from this China risk?  Does anybody know?  To what extent might a flow of capital into Singapore mitigate some of this risk?

4. Climate change could well lead to rising water levels for island nation Singapore.  Investing in sea walls and other forms of protection could take what percent of gdp?  The Dutch are already putting 0.5% of gdp a year into a fund for future water defense.

From this list, #2 and #4 are more likely problems, whereas #1 and #3 are more speculative, but by no means in the realm of science fiction.  There is the possibility of a perfect storm from all four.

And yet think of how things must have looked in 1965.  The Vietnam War was going badly, and most of the trends in Southeast Asia were negative.  Chinese Communism was at its nadir with the Cultural Revolution.  Indonesia had just massacred 500,000 citizens, many of them Chinese.  Singapore itself had just been kicked out of Malaysia, an outcome which its key founders mostly opposed.  There was not yet evidence that what later became “the Singapore model” was going to work, and even Japan was not yet an evident success.  It was commonly believed that Singapore, Malaysia, or both might collapse into a kind of ethnic civil war.  British military expenditures were about 20% of Singapore’s gdp, and it was widely understood that source of income would be going away.  Somehow they managed, most of all with the aid of human capital and being in the right place at the right time.

Here is the Singapore Complaints Choir, one of my favorite music videos.

In any case, I am happy to be here once again.  For dining, I recommend Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, at Geylang Serai hawker centre, get the beef rendang.  National Kitchen, in the new National Gallery is also very good for a more traditional kind of dining.


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