Monday, January 25, 2010

Home, Heart, Horzon: A Public Policy Conference, Singapore Style

January 24

Today was devoted to a day-conference entitled Singapore Perspectives 2010: Home, Heart, Horizon. The event was organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School’s Institute for Policy Studies, one of five research centers under the School’s auspices and a sister to the Institute of Water Policy which is my institutional home.

This blog is about the staging of the event. In a second posting, I will write about the substance. It is hard not to be impressed by the way Singaporeans organize events - and many other things. Registration reminded me of the process we devised for Center for Teaching Excellence events at American University, but on a much larger scale.. Enough staff from the Institute and Conference Center (In Singapore’s Swiss Hotel) were on hand so that more than 300 registrants were processed with no waiting. If one stood and looked puzzled for a moment, a courteous staff member invariably appeared to either ask if you needed help or anticipate the help that you needed. For example as I stood surveying the venue of the Raffles Convention Center Grand Ballroom and wondering if there were reserved seats, a staff member came up, said “good morning” and then, “may I escort you to a seat at a table near the front of the room.” I felt totally cared for and empowered to participate in the work of the day. Coffee, tea and delicious hot snacks were served at each break and there was an excellent sit down lunch, also served with no discernible waiting time. The fact that the conference had twenty corporate sponsors, a subset of the 100 corporate sponsors who were are affiliated with the Institute, not doubt meant there were sufficient resources to stage a high quality event.

As former CTE staff members know, I am picky about the details of event planning. Today was a flawless, virtuoso performance except for brief technical problems with the power point slides of one speaker. From my experience with AV support at AU, I have no doubt this was because the speaker arrived at the last minute, having failed to check in with the technical support staff, with incompatible slides.

More about the substance of the conference, in which Singapore’s Prime Minister participated for nearly two hours, in another posting.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Go there." Singapore's system to aid public transit riders

This morning, I traveled by bus and metro to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. My mission was to secure an ‘employment pass,‘ a final or at least near final step in the complex process of legitimizing my role as a wage-earner in Singapore. I arrived 45 minutes prior to my appointment. Where official matters are concerned in my international travels, I try to allow ample time for missteps, getting lost or other impediments along the way. This morning, there were none.

My travels on Singapore’s metro (MRT) and far more complex bus system has been made far easier by the ‘Go There’ information-technology-based directions system, which is available via the Internet on my computer and in an easily readable application on my iPhone. You simply type in your point of origination, destination and whether you prefer to travel by bus, or by bus and rail in combination. Clicking on the ‘Go There” button produces the bus routes and metro routes, stops, transit and waiting times and, if walking is required, the number of meters. Incorporating all of this, there is an estimate of how long the trip will take. In my few experiments with the system, so far, the estimates have never been off by more than 5 minutes.

So having allowed time to spare, the was ample time to repair to a Hawker’s Stand, with colorful orange tables and blue umbrellas, for a fresh lime juice with ice (cost about $1.00). And there was time to compose this blog. Now, its off to the Ministry.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Terrorism's opportunity costs

January 9th, 2010

“Traveling to Singapore - somewhere over the Indian Ocean - 3:30 AM Singapore Time.

International travel brings home the costs that terrorism imposes on a society in a tangible, personal way. Before my departure, news media were filled with stories of the Nigerian ‘undergarment bomber.’ Investigations were initiated and more planned. President Obama met with key officials. He then spoke gravely, in a nationwide address, about further steps that would be taken to protect air travelers against terrorism. Administration opponents sought pollitical opportunities that security lapses might provide in the upcoming Congressional elections. For a few days, debates over health care legislation, the state of the economy and the recently concluded climate change conference were eclipsed by this story of the moment.

I listened to these stories in the relative tranquility of my rural Virginia home as I sought to assemble clothing, electronic equipment, books and other sundries for my upcoming six month stay in Singapore. As I sorted, organized, packed and weighed my baggage, the challenging first phase of my journey, transiting security at Dulles International Airport was never far from my mind.

Travelers now accept the indignities of airport security checks as part of life. I am not aware that anyone has attempted to calculate the costs-per-passenger of the long lines, and extra time set aside for early airport arrivals (I was advised to allow four hours prior to my flight time for possible emergencies) and intrusions on one’s privacy. Data on the physical and personnel costs of enhanced security must be more readily available, though I have not seen the numbers. The diversion of resources from more productive active economic activity must be staggering.

Some years ago a colleague and I calculated the economic costs of Sri Lanka’s two civil wars, the conflict between Tamil militants and government forces in the Island’s North and between Sinhalese militants and government forces in the South. Both conflicts also included incidents of urban terrorism that disrupted the tourist trade and commercial centers. We calculated the direct physical costs of the conflict and more indirect economic costs, for example the differences between economic growth forecast when Sri Lanka was touted as a development success story and what actually occurred after the “Island Paradise” became engulfed by conflict. Then we estimated the number of militants in each of the dissident movements. Finally, we divided the aggregate economic costs of the conflict by the number of militants to obtain a cost per militant. We calculated that these costs approximated the value of a generous scholarship to a top US university or a very generous grant that might be used, for example, to capitalize a small business.

In a paper reporting these results and, subsequently in my book, Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil wars, we Characterized this number as the “opportunity costs” of violent conflict. A simple way of viewing this technical term in economic analysis is as the “might have beens.” The scholarship and business development programs were, at least in principle, options that could have been chosen by successive Sri Lanka political leaders before they became trapped in the cycle of militant actions and counter-terrorist responses. I argued that the causes of terrorism are known and preventable and that political leaders always have a choice, even when counter terrorist responses emphasizing security are justified with the assertion that ‘we had no choice.’

As I transited successive layers of airport security I reflected how leaders of the developed world and especially US leaders had become entrapped in much the same way that Sri Lanka’s leaders became entrapped in the 1970s and 1980s. But this cycle has infected more than a small island nation that was once described as “paradise.” Its consequences have been global and the costs have been grievous.

There has to be a better way.

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There is more to Singapore than shopping malls

When I told an acquaintance that I would be living for six months in Singapore, her response was immediate and disparaging. “That’s not a place I would like to live, she opined. It is too clean, orderly, authoritarian and filled with shopping malls.”

Singapore is clean and more orderly than most Asian cities. There is no air pollution, virtually no homelessness, relatively few traffic jams. There are no mosquitoes - something a frequent Sri Lankan resident can appreciate. The government does prohibit gum chewing and administers strokes of the cane for vandalism. (However young men are not, as in the US, raped in Singapore’s prisons; then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pointed this out when a US teenager was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for spray painting graffiti on cars,) Its public rail and bus systems are clean, affordable and available. They put New York City and Washington DC to shame.

But what about all those shopping malls? The Orchard Parade Hotel, into which I checked last Saturday morning, is located at the intersection of Orchard and Tangllin Street, in the heart of Singapore’s shopping district. Last year I counted the number of shopping malls in the Orchard Road district on a tourist map. As I recall, there were 19. If you confined your promenades this district you might, indeed, conclude that Singapore was filled with malls and little else. Shopping malls are one of Singapore’s economic engines, though not the only one. They attract wealthy tourists from throughout Asia and suck money out of their wallets, purses and credit-card accounts like powerful magnets. The profits enrich Singapore’s increasingly affluent business class, but also to provide jobs and the tax revenues that help to support public transport, the public housing in which many Singaporeans live, clean water than can be drunk out of the tap, a police force that international ranking agencies have identified as one of the least corrupt in the world; efficient, courteous government services, high-quality relatively inexpensive health care and much more.

As I walked up and down Orchard Road and neighboring streets during my first two days, conducting informal, unstructured ethnographic field research, two things became clear. First, Orchard Road and its environs are one of Singapore’s urban promenades, much like the banks of the Seine in Paris, Piazza’s in Italian cities, Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park in London and similar gathering and walking spaces on other cities. The crowds of - mostly - young people who stroll up and down, and the young people who work as sales persons are not buying Louis Vutton luggage, Armani watches, Jean Patou perfumes and the like. Probably their principal purchases on a Saturday or Sunday outing to Orchard Road are a meal or a drink in one of the sidewalk cafes or restaurants. Possibly they may also purchase a small recreational or fashion item item or necessary in one of the lower end establishments. But their experience of the high-end brand-name establishments for which Orchard Road is famous is mostly vicarious.

So where do ordinary Singaporeans shop for the necessities of life and where do they take their small children for a stroll or to play? In my next blog I will begin to write about another Singapore that I am discovering, some distance from the glitz and glitter of the Orchard Road District. I am beginning to discover - and enjoy- the places where most Singaporeans spend most of their shopping budgets and their working and leisure hours.

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