Poised for the economic upturn, the island nation is humming with energy.
If Singapore is your first introduction to doing business in the Far East, count yourself lucky. Many seasoned travelers regard Singapore as beginner's Asia, an ideal place to ease into a culture that can tend to be confusing.
Singapore successfully combines its Asian sensibilities with a comfortable similarity to cities in the Western world - a physical layout that is easy to comprehend and navigate, a place where English is widely understood and hotels, restaurants and services bear familiar brands. And, as key to negotiating the sometimes tricky business of doing business in a foreign country, Singapore operates along an official policy of transparency rather than in a web of impenetrable customs and protocols.
Singapore is a meritocracy, explained Mitch Green, who averages six business trips a year to this island nation as an associate principal at RMJM, an international architectural practice. It plays by rule of law. As an outsider hoping to succeed in business, you're going to want to know how you'll be evaluated and treated. Singapore's transparency rating is always near the top.
Stephen Kao, another veteran businessman in Asia, echoed this evaluation, stressing the vital role of the government's Economic Development Board in assisting foreign businesses. Your success is also their goal. The EDB listens to what is needed and then does its best to custom-design a way to make it happen for you. Kao, who was senior vice president of Ecolab in Singapore for eight years, added, There's no sense of impenetrable bureaucracy. They want to stimulate and encourage new business in a way that's as easy and simple as possible. Remember, it's good for local employment, too.
Singapore hasn't always been so easy to navigate. Since 1819 when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles docked at what was then a sleepy fishing village at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, this Lion City has taken many turns along the road to becoming a world-class metropolis, progressing from a Straits Settlement in 1826 (grouped with Malacca and Penang), to a major British trading port, to a British Crown Colony in 1946, to the ultimate separation from Malaysia in 1965 and its establishment as a sovereign, democratic and independent nation.
The formation of a parliamentary system of government helped shape Singapore into its present status as a vibrant nation of 4.4 million citizens who, although from many different ethnic heritages - Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian, as well as permanent expats - consider themselves first and foremost Singaporean.
Along with a 92.5 percent literacy rate, Singapore today boasts the region's highest standard of living. In 2008 it was voted the easiest place to do business by The World Bank. Singapore's market-based economy helped grow its seaport into the world's busiest cargo port, voted Best Seaport in Asia 21 times in 23 years by the Asian Freight & Supply Chain Awards.
The country is also recognized as a leading financial center, a transportation hub of Southeast Asia and a leader in shipbuilding and repair. Additional major business components include communication, tourism and oil refining and distribution, as well as supplying electronic components.
Along with the rest of the world, Singapore is feeling the impact of the economic downturn. Decreased demand for electronics, precisionengineered goods and pharmaceuticals has taken its toll, as evidenced by the hundreds of idle freighters lying at anchor just offshore, awaiting the next allotment of cargo.
But in this indomitable island nation where the government can successfully micromanage just about everything - from restricting the sale of chewing gum to calling for the execution of drug traffickers - even something as major as a global recession isn't likely to stop its forward momentum.
In his May Day address this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured residents that Singapore can be quietly confident. Citing new projects the government has instituted to minimize job losses, along with the country's sound financial, manufacturing and shipping components, he stressed the positive strengths of Singapore's economy.
Similarly upbeat, in a recent article in Singapore's The Straits Times, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan remarked, Philosophically, Singapore is always a work in progress. We're always improving ourselves. He listed projects that are poised for the future upturn: the Marina Bay complex, the new financial center, revamped Orchard Road retail malls and cafés, the upcoming Youth Olympic Games and the second annual Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix night street race.
The country welcomed 10.1 million visitors from all over the world in 2008. Although this figure represents a decrease of 2 percent from 2007, Singapore's hospitality industry still experienced an average of 81 percent occupancy for the year.
That inventory will explode when 4,300 additional rooms and suites come online over the next 12 months, all part of the nine new hotels being built in two integrated resorts projects, the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World at Sentosa.
Integrated resorts are large multi-use complexes that include casinos in their mix of hotels, retail and entertainment. And certainly, legalized casinos have the potential to spur a boost in Singapore's economy. In 2006 the government reversed a decades-old ban on casino gambling and accepted bids from various global companies for the construction of two complexes, provided they adhere to specific government guidelines to attract tourism, create strong and unique architectural appeal and further polish Singapore's image as a world-class destination. Two companies, U.S.-based Las Vegas Sands and Malaysia's Genting International, won rights to construct two very different resorts.
Marina Bay Sands, sited on 40 acres at the southern tip of the main island, will focus on convention and exhibition facilities while also creating a dramatic two-acre Sky Garden across the rooftops of its three 50-story hotels, undoubtedly altering the city's skyline forever and creating an iconic symbol immediately identifiable with Singapore - as emphatically as the Opera House represents Sydney or the Eiffel Tower, Paris.
Resorts World, occupying 121 acres on entertainment-driven Sentosa Island - a complex dominated by a Universal Studio's theme park with 22 attractions - will target vacationing families. The complex will include the Marine Life Park (billed as the world's largest oceanarium), the Maritime Xperiential Museum, a wellness spa and six hotels.
Despite the difference in focus, each resort will include abundant shopping, dining and lifestyle components. And, of course, casinos.
Singapore is a relatively small country, its main island occupying only 239 square miles (its 60 outlying islands boost total land area to 250 square miles). Its skyscrapers and recent modern additions, such as the 492-foot Singapore Flyer observation wheel, create a futuristic skyline which contrasts and coexists with earlier symbols - merlion statues and the colonial shophouses and five-foot ways still in use throughout the city. (Next time you're caught in one of Singapore's tropical downpours or are walking about in the midday sun, you'll appreciate these protective verandah walkways.)
Singapore's compact size makes it fairly easy to get around, and its tropical setting makes for some truly unusual urban diversions. The Rainforest, a 170-acre throwback to pre-British Singapore, is right in the heart of town. The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has more plant species than the entire continent of North America. Save some time to play on nearby Sentosa Island, a getaway filled with beaches, amusements and restaurants easily reached by an over-water cable-car journey. You don't have to be a kid to love the Night Safari, a surprisingly sophisticated after-dark narrated ride through a natural-setting zoo where you can spot more than 100 species, many of which are endangered in the wild. Singapore's climate is tropical, so take advantage of such native exotics as the National Orchid Garden and the Jurong Bird Park, an aviary so large a monorail takes you through it.
Bring home gifts that range from ethnic (colorful beaded slippers - bead-work is a signature art of Peranakan women) to the worldly (maybe a coveted Andy satchel by Chloe). Even if you don't buy a single thing, wander along Orchard Road, the city's glittering retail mecca.
If you have the nerve, take a spin on the Singapore Flyer, the world's tallest observation wheel, for a spectacular overview of the city and its islands.
Food is an integral part of the Singapore experience. Bone up in advance with the Singapore Tourism Board's handy little guide, Makan Delights, tel 212 302 4861. Makan is Malay for eat and food, and you'll learn about everything from where to find the best chili crab to food precincts and centers.