SINGAPORE remains an enviously modern and advanced city state, yet it is now going through a sudden and prickly transition period.
Both on the political and economic front, the Lion City has hit the sort of turbulence that is more common in Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.
The warning light flashed on after May’s general election when the long-ruling People’s Action Party got a surprise kick in the bum and lost half a dozen seats.
Its chastened leaders then promptly, and rightly, commenced reassessing some of their more controversial and unpopular policies.
These included the maladministration of the housing estates where most Singaporeans live, and the skyhigh wages paid to ministers – who often under-performed despite becoming millionaires.
And there were other signals, from litter to flooding to security lapses, that showed standards had dropped and that the “little red dot” had lost some of its lustre.
Of course, Singapore’s reputation as the cleanest, most efficient, most crime-free and incorruptible place on the planet was always wildly over-stated.
Indeed, it is now in danger of being usurped by, among others, its traditional rival Hong Kong – the very place its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, uses to benchmark the city state’s progress.
Consider, for instance, the key value judgement made by all visitors, from casual tourists to longterm investors, namely the efficiency and ease of use of the international airport.
Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok is bigger and handles far more passengers than Singapore’s Changi, so you might think it would suffer in terms of efficacy and overall attention to users.
But no, this year Hong Kong again won the World’s Best Airport Award for the eighth time since 2001.
And for the fifth consecutive year, it was voted the World’s Best Airport among those serving more than 40 million passengers annually.
It was praised for the availability and cleanliness of washrooms, the comfort of waiting areas, and the overall ambience and sense of being safe and secure in the terminals.
These are all attributes long thought to be the preserve of squeaky clean Singapore, not smelly and dirty Hong Kong.
Not any more. The Pearl of the Orient is now less smelly and dirty, and more efficient and funky, than the Lion City.
Note also that The Wing, Cathay Pacific’s airport lounge in Hong Kong, was chosen as the world’s best. Virgin’s Upper Class Clubhouse at London Heathrow was second and Malaysian Airlines’ Satellite Golden Lounge at Kuala Lumpur International Airport third.
Eat your heart out, Changi.
As well as the travel and fun sector, Singapore has also been slipping on other more serious fronts.
Already this month, there have been startling reports of a dangerous housing oversupply and fears that Singapore’s banks are vulnerable to a major downturn.
On Friday, the government revealed that this year’s second quarter growth was a measly 0.5 percent – far worse than crippled Vietnam or typical laggards like the Philippines and Indonesia.
At the same time, Singapore’s manufacturing output and service-sector growth has plummeted, causing the overall GDP to crash by an astonishing 7.8 percent.
What is going on? Well, actually, in an over-arching sense, what is happening is positive and reflects the teething pains of transition.
For that is what Singapore is experiencing as it sigues from a sterile one-party autocracy to a messy but vibrant multi-party democracy.
Another portentous step may occur in next month’s presidential election when two establishment stalwarts, Tony Tan and Tan Kin Lian, go up against the renegade Dr Tan Cheng Bock.
A former PAP parliamentarian turned dissident, the affable Dr Tan has wide public support and solid backing from the party grassroots.
But not from the leaders, who blanch at his critical barbs. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has already effectively endorsed the former deputy PM Tony Tan for president.
However, if Singaporeans, as they did in the general election, follow their hearts and vote for Dr Tan, then the transition to a more open and pluralistic society will be well and truly underway.