Why you should care

If you’re interested in business and innovation, then you’re interested in Singapore. 

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Days before Facebook’s 2012 initial public offering, news broke that Eduardo Saverin, one of the company’s five co-founders, had renounced his U.S. citizenship and established residency in Singapore. Saverin’s spokesman claimed that the Brazilian-born billionaire-on-paper was simply putting down roots in a place where he’d been doing business and residing for several years. Others pointed out that potential tax savings in the neighborhood of $40 million dollars might’ve tipped the balance.

The two motivations, of course, go hand in hand and explain why Singapore, long a regional economic powerhouse, is becoming one of a handful of places around the world that are attracting a new kind of elite global innovator — both the wealthy (like Saverin) and the well-on-their-way.

I’m a pretty globally astute guy, but until recently my main associations with the city-state on the Straits of Malacca were of mildly authoritarian capitalist technocrats and a law-and-order society that retained British-era punishments like caning (for vandalism and kidnapping) and hanging (for drug trafficking and unlawful discharge of firearms). But after one CEO friend told me that Singapore was his pick for the new global place-to-be, everywhere I looked in the worlds of business and innovation, I saw Singapore popping up.

Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the CHINICT Techstars in China conference in Beijing, China, on Friday, May 25, 2012.

Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the CHINICT Techstars in China conference in Beijing, China, on Friday, May 25, 2012.

Source Nelson Ching/Getty Images

Saverin, after all, moved to Singapore in search of business opportunity. The prevalence of English speakers and Singapore’s common law traditions make it a great gateway city for start-ups doing business in China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s no longer rare to read about homegrown Singaporean start-ups like Nitrous.IO attracting big money from Silicon Valley investors (including Saverin), nor to hear about top foreign talent (like the Finnish founders of Nonstop Games) or the American duo behind loyalty card start-up Perx flocking to tech incubators in Singapore.

More and more, Singapore is going toe-to-toe with Hong Kong to become an Asian financial center — one roughly equidistant from Dubai, Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo and Sydney. In recent years it’s closed in on or surpassed Hong Kong and even money-friendly Switzerland to handle upwards of $1.29 trillion in personal assets under management.

HSBC, the global bank that handles a lot of that wealth, reports that Singapore has the largest proportion of wealthy expatriates of any country, and notes that most who move there have seen an increase of more than 50 percent in disposable income.

So what’s the secret to Singapore’s sauce? Part of it is the city’s unique history and location. It grew from a fishing village into an important port during the heyday of the British empire. After Japanese occupation during World War II and two decades of waning colonial rule, Singapore achieved full independence (after a failed two-year union with Malaysia) in 1965. The country’s undisputed guiding force from the late 1950s through now has been one man, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister for decades before turning over the government to trusted allies. (Since 2004, the prime minister has been Lee’s eldest son). Under his reign, Singapore became one of the “Four Asian Tigers,” industrializing apace with Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

Prime Minister Kuan Yew Lee speaking during May Day rally. May 1, 1965

Prime Minister Kuan Yew Lee speaking during May Day rally. May 1, 1965

Source Larry Burrows/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Lee and his People’s Action Party have been routinely re-elected with high margins through a mix of mildly strong-arm tactics (they’re genius at co-opting the opposition) and genuine technocratic success. Under PAP rule, Singapore has grown from a trans-shipping port — it’s currently number one in the world — into a center for the movement of people, ideas and money.

Singapore’s mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians has made it a model for multi-ethnic civil society. The Chinese are the largest group and tend to fare the best economically, but the rest are never far behind. The PAP’s control over all levels of government has allowed Singapore to innovate unilaterally, finding unique solutions to the problems faced by a country that is almost 100 percent urban. It was one of the first places to use congestion pricing to keep automotive traffic from snarling the city. The island nation has even expanded outward, importing sand from further and further afield to create new land for high-rises and hotels.

Singapore’s government has successfully recast the country as an information technology center, subsidizing research and, most recently, developing the university-backed biotech hub Biopolis and making plans to build an Underground Science City that sounds like something out of James Bond. Meanwhile, the area’s proximity to Asia’s tech goods producers makes it especially friendly for hardware hackers working on the next big gadget.

Meanwhile the World Bank ranks the island nation the best place on the planet in terms of ease of doing business. Singapore is also in the top five least-corrupt countries — making it a very good place to do business, as long as it’s not the news business.

Chinatown during Chinese New Year, Singapore

Chinatown during Chinese New Year, Singapore

Source John Harper/Corbis

In terms of lifestyle, Singapore occasionally gets a knock for basically developing itself into one gigantic, air-conditioned shopping mall. That may be partly true, but it’s a damn good mall, with new high-rises, hotels and entertainment venues popping up to ensure that Singapore, though still perhaps not as wild as high-end Hong Kong, comes close in a way that many people find much more livable. The city also boasts a foodie culture — the preferred local greeting is not “Good morning” but “Have you eaten?” — that scores at every price point, from hawker centers dishing Indian, Malay and Chinese street food to the esoteric achievements of molecular gastronomy.

The attraction for all levels of foreign workers, who currently account for 37 percent of the labor force, is undeniable — so much so that the PAP has recently pushed through a rare bit of business-constraining regulation, mandating that all job listings that pay less than $9,600 a month be offered exclusively to Singaporeans for the first two weeks.

The government’s other approaches to increasing the number of Singaporeans in the future workplace can be more lighthearted. Last year they organized a national campaign enticing well-off citizens to celebrate the nation’s August 9 independence day by making more Singaporeans. I doubt we’ll ever see something like that in Silicon Valley.

Whether you’re looking for a place to incubate a start-up, find a tech job or invest in a new business, Singapore should definitely be on your radar. It’s now on mine.

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