The Word On The Streets, now in its 5th instalment, has previously been reserved for things I picked up during trips to Nigeria. Well, seeing as I made the rules, I will now proceed to break them by bringing you this edition from Singapore.
1. You call the Singapore embassy in London and they then send you a sparse 3 page form by email almost immediately. You then fill this form with your trip details as well as where you plan to stay in Singapore. Also attach a passport photograph for good measure. You take the form at your convenience (between 9.30am and 2.30pm actually) to the embassy along with £15 in cash. You dont need an appointment to go to the embassy, just walk in.
When you get there you hand over the form, the £15 and your international passport. Someone checks it in about 10minutes and then gives you a receipt asking you to come back in 72hours. 3 days later you go back there, collect your passport along with the visa stapled to your passport. That’s it. Job done. Enjoy your flight. Your visa will allow you stay for up to 30 days.
The same process I just described to you with the Nigerian High Commission in London is as painful as having your eyelashes forcefully plucked out. It will also cost you $500 for a multiple visa. If you are lucky, they wont reject your application telling you that you didnt do something they never told you was a requirement in the first place.
Please help us tell our Foreign Minister (once he has finished dealing with the bloody South Africans) that life need not be so hard. Shedding tears to get a visa does not by itself confer value on the thing. Let us make life easier for the people who want to come to Nigeria. They will come and spend money in the country. The benefits will be felt from the taxi drivers at MMIA to the hotels on the Mainland and the Island. Please help me beg him. I promise I wont be rude again.
2. Our flight stopped over in Doha for a few minutes so when we got on the plane to S’pore, we got handed some documents about the dos and donts in S’pore. We panicked a bit. There was a whole list of things that were banned and others which carried fines and import duties. Top on the list was hard drugs which carry the death penalty for anyone smuggling such into the country. These guys dont want drugs in their country. You may recall the story of Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi who was executed in 2007 after he was arrested with hard drugs at Changi Airport in 2004. Thankfully my wife and I decided it was a bad idea before we left London so we didnt carry any. I’d say you shouldnt too.
But DVDs were also on the list which panicked us a bit. We had a DVD of The Figurine in our bag and we are generally law abiding people (or so we like to think). So upon landing and collecting our bags at the fabulous Changi Airport, we quickly went to report ourselves to the first customs officer we saw before our bags were screened. The lady laughed and told us it was no problem. Cue a collective sigh of relief from the both of us.
Chewing gums are also on the list. They are effectively a controlled substance in S’pore so you wont find them to buy anywhere in the country and you are only allowed to bring in medical gums or stuff like that. Apparently in 1992 some silly sod stuck gum in between the doors of a train which caused all sorts of delays on the public transport system when the doors couldnt close properly. Banned! ever since then.
3. In keeping with the ‘life is not hard’ theme, here’s what a Nigerian friend who moved here a few months ago told me
The one that surprised me was when we went to open our bank accounts like 1 week after we got here. We were still living in the hotel at that time. We sat in the bank and they took all our details and asked us how we wanted our names on our bank cards. We told them and I wanted to get up and leave when they said no we should wait. I was wondering and in a few minutes they brought out the bank cards and gave it to us. Everything from opening the bank accounts to getting our cards was completed there and then in like an hour [Paraphrased]
I hear some Nigerian banks are now doing something like this. Please encourage them.
Also please help us beg our regulators to do things to make life easy for regular people so they can concentrate their energies on going after the real criminals. 2 referees to open a current account is not the solution to fraud. Neither is making bank accounts go dormant after 3 months. If anything that can create a perverse incentive for dodgy staff members to keep an eye on dormant accounts with a view to making money dissapear. Again, I promise not to be rude anymore if our regulators can take steps to make life easier for regular Nigerians and entrepreneurs.
Walking out of the airport, we saw a stand advertising PAYG sim cards for use in S’pore. we thought to try it. 10 minutes and S$50 later, we were up and running with S$60 worth of credit. Despite my wife’s best efforts, we never managed to finish using it in 1 week.
4. I was with a British friend of mine having drinks at a pub. The bill came in and I looked at the VAT of 7%. I then mused out loudly if a time would come when we would see such low taxes in the UK again? ‘No chance’ he said.
Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible, over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state
The above is a quotation from Adam Smith which the Singaporeans seem to have taken to heart. And it’s not just personal taxes, it’s corporate taxes as well. Companies pay 17% in taxes on their profits in Singapore. In fact, in the APAC region, there is fierce competition among the neighbouring countries to win business. So in Hong Kong corporate taxes are 16.5% while Taiwan recently cut theirs from 25% to 17%. Malaysia and Indonesia have also been steadily lowering their taxes in a bid to woo businesses.
Most people pay 7% – 15% on their personal income and the top band of 20% only kicks in when you earn above S$320k.
The result is that Singapore is a permanent fixture at the top of the Doing Business reports ranking compiled by the World Bank. Every conceivable obstacle in the way of enterprise has been removed by the govt. Anyone can register a company in S’pore and be up and running in 24hours or slightly more. There is a generous amount of S$50k allowance for profits on which you pay no taxes.
Can you give a good reason why tax rates in Nigeria are about double what you pay in Singapore other than the fact that we dont seem to be in competition with anyone but ourselves?
Paging Mr Aganga…..
5. There are not a lot of Nigerians in S’pore. In fact there isnt so much of a ‘Nigerian community’ as you will find quickly in other countries. The few Nigerians you find there are professionals who have come to work in the country as ex-pats. It’s just not a place where you can hang about if you have nothing doing.
Most Nigerians I saw or heard about are doing very well as a result. Without divulging too much details given to me in confidence, I heard about a particular Nigerian chap who is living the life…no other way of putting it. He dwells (yes, dwells) in what can only be described as the poshest part of town. In fairness, there are not a lot of black people actually. We didnt run into black people on the streets until after about a week (excluding our friends). So you do get a lot of stares on trains and in public places but of the non malicious variety. We are something of a novelty in these parts still.
Nevertheless, this Nigerian chap by the name of Amanchukwu Chukwuma not only managed to overstay his welcome in the country but he also strangled his Singaporean girlfriend in December 2009. He pleaded guilty so he got the lesser charge of culpable homicide (12 years) in January this year. From what I have heard about jails in S’pore, they are the equivalent of hell on earth and people are known to beg to be killed rather than endure the time there. The fact that he also killed a Singaporean makes you really fear for what will happen to him in there.
But balance is good. We went out with friends to a water themed park with music blaring over the tannoy as you’d expect. Sometime after Rihanna came on and definitely before C-Lo Green and Adele, our very own Asa’s ‘Be My Man’ came on. Count it all joy my friends.
6. Ever wondered how Apple managed to become a $500bn company? Wonder no more for I have the answer. I thought London was iPhone country but S’pore is something else. For fear of exaggerating I will say between 70 and 80% of the people there use iPhones. It’s amazing…literarily everyone on the streets is carrying one.
This is a very wealthy country with something like 15% of the population being millionaires. Christian Louboutins are par for the course (yes I know the red soles) and people were queuing to enter a Gucci store that wasnt on sale. It’s not so much that something is happening in Asia Pacific, it has already happened. The middle class are well and truly alive out there. And they are consuming things. Every shop you can name on the planet is in S’pore. Seemingly endless shopping streets and malls everywhere. They are spending the money.
This is the challenge that China is now trying to conquer i.e. moving the economy away from a heavy reliance on exports (with the attendant risks) to domestic consumption that can sustain the levels at which its churning out stuff. I observed that most banks were offering interest on savings of less than 2% across the board. Given the ferocious way in which Asians are known to save, if the interest rates are any higher than this, people will probably just chuck their money in the bank and leave it to grow there.
We of course dont save anywhere near enough in Nigeria which has the annoying effect of making cost of borrowing very high (not the only reason but an important one). So we need to boost savings in Nigeria while the Asia Pacific guys need to curb saving to boost consumption and investment. Different strokes…
S’pore also doesnt produce much. Literarily everything is imported especially food given that Malaysia is only 45mins away by plane. The reason for this is simple, the opportunity cost of using land for farming is so great that it doesnt make any sense. Farming is a ‘waste’ really. I asked a class mate of mine how much of the food in the country is produced locally. She laughed and exclaimed ‘hey, we produce 20% of the eggs we eat!’. Buying a standalone house with its own garden will cost you up to S$30m from what I was told. ‘Why would you want to do that’? the same classmate asked me. Everyone lives in highrise condos and flats. More on this below.
This is food for thought for some people in our leadership who think it’s such a terrible thing that we import certain things. Such is the free market – even if you have all the resources to produce something, someone else might just be able to produce it more cheaply than you ever can making it more sensible to import. It might be down to culture or even the weather but in this day and age there really isnt any point messing about with stuff you dont have a comparative advantage in. Just import them and save your resources and energy for what you can do very well. In Singapore’s case, the photo below is one of the things it does very well – financial services and all things related.
7. Food in S’pore is the business. Yours truly is a fan of oriental food especially Thai cuisine so the opportunity to go and eat Singapore Fried Rice ‘live’ greatly excited me. The food is cheap and plentiful to the point where our Nigerian friends told us its too expensive to be cooking at home. They quickly learnt this after moving there and adjusted accordingly.
Mrs F and I went to a restaurant and I ordered some rice dish and asked for medium (so great was the variety on offer that I ended up ordering based on the pictures on the menu for stuff I hadnt eaten before). The waitress looked at me in horror and walked away. Half a minute later she came back and in broken Singlish told me that she didnt think it was a smart idea to order medium. She pleaded that I go for the small. I was very hungry and I was tempted to give her the famous proverb about how the tiger’s gentility should never be mistaken for cowardice i.e. slim dont mean I cant my weight in food. So I smiled and insisted that I was having the medium. A few minutes later someone else came and repeated the supplication that I should downgrade to the small sized dish. Weary, I agreed and told them to change it to small.
When the food came, she was right. Small was a full plate of rice with all kinds of fancy stuff in it. Getting up afterwards was predictably a challenge afterwards.
The food was also very healthy across the board. On our first night I bought a bottle of apple juice from a store (or that’s what I thought it was as it had an apple on the bottle and had ‘juice’ written somewhere there). Got to the room and tasted it and there was barely a taste of apple in the damned thing. This was the same everywhere. These guys dont mess about with too much sugar. I didnt find a drink that was as sweet as London not to talk of Dansa juice in Nigeria. To the eternal shame of my detractors, I may even have put on some weight in just one week.
Is this govt policy? I dont know but I do know that getting people to eat healthy seriously saves on health care costs in the long run for which everyone in society ends up paying for one way or the other. As a classmate of mine said half-jokingly ‘in Singapore we say it is cheaper to die than to be sick because medical insurance is quite high’.
I then asked her if they had any social welfare system. ‘Nothing like that in Singapore. Except during elections the govt might decide to give everybody 20% of their tax back using some silly excuse’. Ah, politicians…they are almost always the same eh?
8. All of Singapore is no more than 710sq kilometres and a population of 5.2m manage to squeeze in there. Now given how fabulously wealthy the country you’d expect Rolls Royces and Range Rovers to be bumper to bumper in gridlock traffic with Aston Martins and Bentleys eh?
Something like 50 years ago, an economist called William Vickrey (Nobel Prize winner in 1996) came up with a proposal to charge for road usage as a way to cut traffic gridlock in congested cities. His idea was of a variable charge that went up as traffic went up and vice versa. He got short shrift in America and other western countries with his idea but in 1975, Singapore adopted his ideas and ran with it.
Today S’pore is the world’s second densest country but the roads are free flowing. I encountered minor traffic only once and it was due to road works going on. The magic is what is known as ERP seen in the photo below.
During peak periods, the rates naturally go up and finally down to zero at 8pm in the evening. When you are in a taxi and the driver drives through an ERP toll, you hear a beep sound and the number ‘1’ appears on the fare reader, another one and it goes up to ‘2’ and so on. At the end of your journey, the total ERP is calculated and added to your fare and you the customer pays it.
There is also the ‘Certificate of Entitlement’ which allows you drive a car in S’pore. For an average car this costs an eye watering S$50k and it lasts for 10 years. This is on top of the car’s cost. So you have a situation where a new Corolla for example can cost up to S$100k. If you buy a car and after 5 years decide to change it, the CofE is not transferable and you will still be liable to continue paying for it. For cars like Aston Martins and other luxury brands, I hear the total cost can be as much as $S1m. The effect of all this is that you dont see many cars on the road. Unlike other countries where you see flashy cars every other minute, in S’pore seeing a brand new Range Rover for example is so rare that I only recall seeing one the whole time.
I also didnt see a petrol station until our last day in town. You dont notice they are not there until you actually think about it. Petrol costs around S$2.20 per litre which means the govt also applies a heavy tax on its consumption.
The non existence of the problem of traffic congestion in S’pore is proof positive that the problem has in fact been solved.
9. So if people cant drive how do they get around? The frighteningly efficient public transport system, that’s how. Oh the shame I felt coming from London and seeing the underground system. Air conditioned sparkling clean and modern trains all round that were very regular. The trains were also dirt cheap. You can travel for S$1 on some journeys. There is no journey possible in London for the equivalent 50p, even for 1 stop on a bus.
Taxis are also very cheap and all conditioned. Same for the buses. The result is that the person sitting next to you on the train could possibly be a multi millionaire. Taxi drivers are apparently background checked to within an inch of their life and only Singaporeans are allowed to drive cabs.
10. Speaking of cabs, your correspondent subscribes to the conventional wisdom that in any country taxi drivers are the truth. There is what you hear on the television and read in the papers and there’s what taxi drivers tell you.
After several attempts at striking up a conversation with different cab men and women, I finally struck gold the day before we left with a nice chatty guy. Highlights of our gist below
Taxi Driver: [Pointing] That’s the police headquarters over there
Me: Funny you mention it. How come I havent seen the police patrolling the city everywhere?
TD: Oh they dont just drive around. Petrol is very expensive you know. If you call them they will come over quickly
Me: How’s Lee Kuan Yew doing these days?
TD: The man is doing fine. You know he’s old now but his brain is still sharp [He’s now 89]. This is his constituency here [pointing to the area near the harbour as we drove past]. He’s still an MP. But now he doesnt have to wake up at 6am like before…he now gets up at 10am and takes things easy. But he did very well with the leaders he groomed after him. But when there are serious issues being discussed you always hear his wise counsel.
Me: You mean his son? [Lee Hsieng Loong the current Prime Minister]
TD: Not just him. They are all very good…all the ministers. I think Singapore needs an opposition but they wont be able to ever win elections to take over the country.
Me: But I heard the opposition did well in last year’s elections?
TD: [Laughing] Yes they tried. They won in my area Aljuneid because they had a good GRC [this is a uniquely Singaporean system where parties field a team of candidates to represent a particular consituency. Sort of like a package deal where your one vote gets you like 5 MPs]. They even beat the foreign minister [George Yeo. More here]…they had very good candidates. One of the guys has degrees from Oxford and Harvard [he repeated this point] and another woman was a lawyer who had made a lot of money in her private practice. I voted for them! [now laughing]. The candidates were very good so I say give them a chance.
Me: Your roads are very good and clear here
TD: Oh yes…all the money they take from us they put it back into the roads. Even the certificate of entitlement money we pay, you can see them spending it back on the roads. In Kuala Lumpur traffic is really bad. But Jakarta is the worst…it’s terrible there. 30 years the population is increasing and they dont increase the infrastructure because of corruption
I was in another taxi the next day and I noticed the driver’s name was a Muslim Malaysian sounding one. So I asked him if he was born in Singapore. ‘Oh yeah I was born here. I grew up here and I have seen it change. When I was younger you couldnt hang around outside or even visit some neighbourhoods because different gangs controlled different areas. By 8pm everyone was indoors because of crime’
I’d hazard a guess and say the cab man was something like 60 years old. I shook my head in disbelief when he said that. It is just impossible for the brain to imagine a Singapore that was once crime riddled with gangs running riot. Today it has one of the lowest crime rates in the world leaving the police with plenty of time to investigate ‘internet love scams‘ and other such ‘serious’ offences.
11. Do you think you can teach maths and perhaps English? There’s money to be made in S’pore for you. A couple of my classmates who have kids were telling me how ferocious the competition in their education is. Both of them said they couldnt help their kids with their homework because even at the age of 8 the kids were all doing algebra.
So even as good as the public education system is, it’s still the norm for parents to pay for extra lessons for their kids. Apparently teachers who offer these extra lessons for 1 hour a day are known to make up to S$500k a year.
12. Finally housing. This is one problem that, as smart as the leadership of S’pore is, they cant seem to solve and they probably will never solve as long as it is defined as a ‘problem’. It’s not the size or quality of the houses that is the issue, the flats and condos are very nice and well maintained. The problem is the cost of housing. It is terribly expensive to live in S’pore. They are building them as fast as they can as you can see below but this is doing nothing to bring down prices.
If I were to leave London today and move to S’pore, I would expect to pay more than double what I currently pay for accomodation. Apparently this is a hot button issue in the country and the govt tries to address it with public housing known as HDBs (Housing Development Board). These flats are supposed to be for the ‘poor’ people. An example is below…dont laugh please even though they look like what we call ‘serviced flats’ in Lagos for which people pay in dollars.
They are very clean and tidy as well. Only thing is you wont find a communal swimming pool like all the other private ones have. Apparently even the HDBs are very expensive now and hard to get. It’s also interesting that both houses in the photos above are literarily across the street from each other. You can throw a stone from the posh flats to the HDBs.
This is not something I have ever seen in any western country. The only way such a thing can work is if you have extremely low crime rates because generally speaking public houses are known in most places as crime filled areas. In fact in the UK, the valuation of a house will be depressed if it is simply facing the direction of a public housing estate. The reverse is the case in S’pore. People who live in HDBs are said to complain whenever a posh or upscale block of flats is being built near them as this inevitably means the value of the public houses goes up along with the rents there. Fascinating.
The cost of housing or rents in general is also the biggest barrier to starting a business from what I gathered after speaking to a few people. If you are starting a business that involves renting office space or a shop, then you’d need to be able to fork out the rent for it (those teachers I mentioned earlier generally do the extra lessons from inside their flats to save costs).
Development does not happen by chance. Just standing still will not build you a decent public transportation system. To think that this country was once poor and is now not just one of the wealthiest in the world but with an economy that grew at 7.9% in 2010. It runs a free market economy where any and everyone gets a fair crack of the whip yet Temasek, the state owned Sovereign Wealth Fund, has stakes in companies that account for more than half of the country’s GDP.
It doesnt hand out money to people to sit at home (you get a wage top up if you earn below S$1700 per month or thereabouts), yet it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. The state does not ‘dash’ people pensions but instead forces everyone to save towards their own healthcare (Medisave) and retirement. If you fall ill and have a large medical bill, the state will only intervene after your insurance has paid up and then your Medisave account has been drawn down. The govt is always advertising about how Mrs so and so fell ill and had a bill of S$150k yet managed to pay it all without recourse to govt help.
In short, it’s left, it’s right and is all things pragmatic at the very same time.
You can feel the people’s pride when they talk about their country. 3 different taxi drivers asked me to move to Singapore and come work there for a while stressing that I’d love it (as if I needed any convincing). They know what they once were and you get the sense that having now tasted the good life, they’d fight to the death to protect it. Neighbours will phone the police if they see a suspicious person just hanging around.
This is the biggest trick their govt has pulled on them – by delivering prosperity to the people on a large scale, they have shifted the hard work of protecting it to the people. No one who knew what the country once was ever wants to go there again. Enjoyment trumps sufferhead all day every day.
Let’s get this Nigerian show on the road even if none of us might see the dream in our lifetimes.
P.S They did not take light in my one week there. What were you thinking?