Can Scottish lion match Asian tiger of Singapore?

Singapore offers an exciting glimpse of how successful Scotland’s economy could be – independent or not, says Roddy Gow

In the almost 40 years since being forced into independence, Singapores population has grown to 5.5 million. Picture: AFP/Getty
In the almost 40 years since being forced into independence, Singapores population has grown to 5.5 million. Picture: AFP/Getty

When Singapore was forced to separate from Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent republic, it faced great economic and political challenges to survive alongside its wealthier and better developed neighbour.

At the time, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s reluctant first prime minister, lamented: “For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, all my adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories.”

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Many of his new compatriots felt similarly. Singapore, arguably, has the distinction of being the only country in recent history to gain independence against its will: an interesting parallel of sorts as we contemplate the possibility of Scottish independence.

Bright Purple Resourcings managing director Nick Price

In the almost 40 years since then, Singapore’s population has grown to 5.5 million – comparable to that of Scotland – and it has positioned itself as the major financial centre of south-east Asia with an energetic and highly-educated population. It is widely viewed as a considerable success story with GDP per capita of more than $60,000 (£37,000) – twice that of Scotland.

A hub for transportation and banking, Singapore has a highly-developed engineering and alternative energy sector. Its governance is often described as being a “benign autocracy”, but, in fact, it has a very efficient parliamentary democratic system based on that of Westminster, and a racially diverse population.

Parallels between Singapore and Scotland

Some have commented on the parallels between Singapore and Scotland in terms of what a better-focused Scotland, independent or not, could become with investment in the creative industries, the repositioning of its tarnished financial services sector and the potential for developing new energy-related businesses and technologies. Both countries boast excellent educational institutions and, like Scotland, Singapore is keen to attract foreign talent, making a commitment to double the number of students by welcoming overseas universities.

Can Scotland’s Lion rise to the challenge and replicate the success of this Asian Tiger? There are some notable Scottish success stories with a significant presence in the city state, such as online flight search engine Skyscanner, which has expanded its footprint in Singapore. Bright Purple Resourcing, the Edinburgh-based recruiting firm, has just opened its first global office there. Managing director Nick Price notes in a recent blog: “We are not alone – there are around 8,000 Scots living and working in Singapore and about 40 Scottish companies with most universities there or nearby.”

When the Asia Scotland Institute and Adam & Company hosted a discussion between the high commissioner of Singapore, T Jasudasen, and Scottish companies recently, these parallels were very much the topic of conversation.

I reminded our guests of the many historical connections between Scotland and Singapore. The first governor in 1823 was a Scot, John Crawfurd, and Raffles co-founder William Farquhar was a Scotsman.

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Touring Singapore today, one can see a wealth of buildings and road names that are of Scottish origin.

Probably one of the most significant contributors to the infrastructure of Singapore was Scottish civil engineer John Turnbull Thomson, who in 1844 became superintendent of roads and public works. His outstanding achievement was the design and construction of Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Banca Rock. More recently, Professor Sir David Lane worked as the executive director of Singapore’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, receiving worldwide acclaim for discovering the p53 cancer gene in 1979. He is clearly following in the footsteps of some great Scots before him.

Ingredients Scotland should build on

But is there a lesson to be learned from the parallels and connections, is there a parable? Many believe that Singapore, with its flat tax and favourable trading climate, possesses exactly the ingredients that Scotland should be building on.

While Singapore is sometimes referred to as the “nanny state” because of the strong central government and highly-regulated society, it is certainly contrasted with Scotland where such a high percentage of the population works for the state, itself a nanny of sorts. We should take note of Singapore’s successes.

Certainly, the high commissioner encouraged Scots companies and individuals to engage with his country and the highly successful exchange we enjoyed will, we believe, lead to greater engagement with Singapore’s economic development team to move discussions forward.

So with these connections, combined with the affection which many in Singapore still have for Scotland, this may be a welcome challenge to examine to what extent the Singaporean “miracle” might be replicated in Scotland.

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This process might start with the Scots building a better understanding of this Asian country and drawing some parallels about ways of moving forward.

• Roddy Gow is chairman and founder of the Asia Scotland Institute