Cllr Andrew Wood represents Canary Wharf Ward on Tower Hamlets Council.
Singapore often gets quoted in the debate over Brexit – but usually of a fantasy version of Singapore: a low tax, low regulation mirage. The reality is that Singapore is not especially low tax, nor is it unregulated. Its corporation tax rate is 17 per cent; we will achieve the same rate in 2020. Other tax rates are lower, but mainly because its welfare state works very differently to our own, with residents and businesses required to save into a Central Provident Fund (equivalent to 35 per cent of a worker’s salaries), and it spends almost twice as much on defence as a percentage of GDP as we do. As for regulation, in some areas it is more nanny state then we are. But it is certainly true it is a more business-friendly environment then the UK.
Singaporeans earn more than we do per person- $87,856 USD versus UK $42,609), live longer (2016 figures for equivalent purchasing power), have lower rates of unemployment and child mortality and, on the United Nations Human Development Indicators, the country ranks fifth in the world; we are sixteenth. Between 2009 and 2014, its economy grew an average of 6.4 per cent each year, ours by 1.8 per cent a year on average over the same period.
Having recently visited and having grown up in Singapore, I believe that it is a model we can learn some lessons from – maybe not for the whole of the UK but certainly for the great cities, from Glasgow down to London. As a physically small country, it can perhaps do some things more quickly, but which we can learn from none the less.
Some of these key lessons are:
1. Airports – Put flowers in the arrival halls of the main ones. This may sound trivial, but it is the kind of attention to detail that cumulatively has a big impact. Airport arrivals are our shop window for the world. Great shops make their entrances as welcoming and inviting as possible. The new arrival halls at Heathrow are fine – in a global glass, steel and concrete kind of way – but nothing really tells you that you have arrived in the UK except possibly the queues. I remember the shock of having to wait as long as ten minutes in a passport queue at Changi airport in Singapore; normally it takes a few minutes. I do not think we treat our foreign guests as well: waits longer then 30 minutes should be ringing alarm bells at the Home Office. If we want to trade globally, we need to be serious about our shop front.
2. Housing – 90 per cent of Singaporeans own their own home, only 65 per cent of us do so here in the UK, and this rate is in long-term decline. Most homes in Singapore were built by a Government agency, the Housing and Development Board, which started work when Singapore was still a British colony, based on the work done by Macmillan and Churchill. But its work continues to this day – developing and building new towns as well as upgrading existing homes. Unlike the UK, Singapore never stopped building a mixture of private and government-built homes and, through creating new towns and not just new homes, it has ensured that the supporting infrastructure is in place as well.
3. Infrastructure – Singapore has superb infrastructure – whether roads, pavements or underground. It is planning for 80 per cent of its citizens to live within ten minutes’ walk of a train station. It is currently building or planning six new transit lines, three new airport terminals, a new motorway and a nature reserve. The new towns built come with their own schools, hospitals and social infrastructure, planned in advance. We are still discussing Crossrail 2, rail improvements in the north, airport capacity in the South East, etc. It took us years to decide to do HS2. They plan ahead.
4. Education – The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) managed by the OECD scores Singapore students at 564 points in Maths. The UK gets 492 points, and ranks 27th among nations taking part. For reading, Singapore students get a score of 535. The UK gets 498, and ranks 22nd. For Science, Singapore students get a score of 556. The UK gets 509 and ranks 15th. In all three categories, Singapore tops the PISA international tables: it has the best education system in the world. One reason is that education is seen as a national priority, and the focus is on a high-quality teaching workforce which is prestigious, and attracts the best graduates. If we want to catch up, we need to focus much more on the quality of teaching, and also have a National Institute of Education. Education has to have a national, regional and local focus. Tower Hamlets, my local authority, barely discusses this subject.
5. Planning – Singapore is several years ahead of the UK, in the use of new technology as regards planning. It has the Centre for Liveable Cities (whose public gallery I recommend), and the Prime Minister’s National Research Foundation, which leads on planning. It has a 3D model of the whole country, and has plotted the planning use for each piece of land. It is, for example, able to plan wind-flows through its new towns, ensuring that they thus minimise the need for air conditioning. Planning is a whole-of-society effort, rather an add-on function, as it is here.
Singapore really is a model we need to look at on a wider range of subjects then those I list above – just not the ones many people in the UK think of.