City Guide: Singapore
When Americans living in Singapore cross the bridge to Malaysia or step off the ferry in Indonesia, they often remark that they are “back in Asia.” Singapore is unique among its neighbors: clean, ultra-efficient and seemingly corruption-free. This tiny island of only 263 square miles is Southeast Asia’s main business hub, a place where you can regularly rub shoulders with regional CEOs from the world’s leading companies.
Singapore offers business travelers both connectivity and convenience. Changi Airport consistently leads airport rankings, and visitors flying in from the U.S. on airlines such as United, Northwest or Singapore Airlines will arrive at brand-new Terminal 3, which opened in early January 2008. Built at a cost of $1.2 billion, Terminal 3 is the airport’s largest.
All of Changi’s terminals are extremely efficient: Passengers typically find themselves in a cab to the city 20 to 30 minutes after they step off the plane. Thanks to the free-trade agreement between the United States and Singapore, Americans can expect to be granted a three-month visa upon arrival. For departing passengers, Terminal 3 offers 140 shopping and retail options. These include three outlets of Harry’s, Singapore’s most popular bar chain, and microbrewery Brewerkz, which offers some of the best American food in Singapore.
In town, you’ll find a broad range of accommodations, from budget options to five-star hotels. The most recent major opening was the St. Regis Singapore on Tanglin Road (next to Tanglin Shopping Center), joining Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons and historic Raffles Hotel at the top of the hotel spectrum. Because of Singapore’s small size, city hotels are located within half an hour of the airport.
History and culture
Historically a trading nation, Singapore survives as one of the world’s most open economies and the financial hub of Southeast Asia. Many companies use the country as a springboard to the region. According to figures provided by the American Chamber of Commerce, Singapore was America’s 15th largest trading partner and 9th largest export market in 2006. Amcham plays a key role in looking after American business interests in Singapore. Its 2,700 members represent over 500 American, Singaporean and other international companies, and over $25 billion in investments in Singapore.
American Jack Miller, the Asia Pacific managing director of security firm Guardsmark, has lived in Singapore for 17 years and in Asia since 1974. “Personal relationships are of great importance in Singapore,” he says, “but probably not any more so than in the USA—unless there is a family or very long-term relationship dating back to school, and so on. The most obvious tip for doing business here is that Singapore is not a typical Southeast nation, as there is no bribing, whether directly negotiated or via ‘consultants.’”
“As in anywhere in Asia, downplay the lawyers,” he adds. “Reach agreement on business terms, and then let the lawyers wordsmith it. There is not the visceral negative reaction to lawyers in Singapore that there is elsewhere in Asia, but they should not be business-terms setters. They should primarily be documenters, although their experience in negotiating other contract terms and thus identifying problems and recommending solutions is more acceptable in Singapore.”
Given the long tradition of American businesses in Singapore—during the 1980s, General Electric was the country’s second biggest employer after the government—the path has been well prepared, and a number of resources are available online. The American Chamber of Commerce (amcham.org.sg), International Chamber of Commerce (sicc.com.sg) and the commercial section of the American Embassy (singapore.usembassy.gov) are useful sources for contacts.
Singapore government Web sites are also helpful. The site of the Economic Development Board (sebd.com), the government agency tasked with attracting foreign investment to Singapore, can help companies identify the types of businesses encouraged by Singapore’s government, including where funding support is available. Local and multinational law firms, accountants and consultants offer due-diligence services to determine the bona fides, reputation and past performance of potential business associates.
“The risk of offending the culture here is considerably less than elsewhere in Asia,” says Miller. “Singapore is a multicultural society, and people tolerate each other’s cultural differences—[but] intentional offense is another matter, of course. Avoid any negative reference to another culture, even in an attempt to be humorous. Criticizing government policies and practices, although considerably more tolerated if done by Singaporeans, is still probably not a good idea for a foreigner.” Miller notes that relations with government regulators have been greatly simplified, especially in the area of taxes and immigration, and there has been considerable improvement in the attitude and customer-service mentality of government. “That said,” he adds, “there is still considerable bureaucracy in the lack of delegation of authority and, from the other end, fear to take initiative by civil servants. Be patient, and above all, do not be offensive or disparaging. Confrontation works considerably less well in Singapore than in the USA.”
What to do
Perhaps the nicest perk for business travelers in Singapore is the range of options available during downtime. Broad sidewalks and well-designated traffic crossings make the city one of Asia’s most pedestrian-friendly. The midday heat can be a challenge for those from colder climates—although Singapore is known as “the air-conditioned nation.” The country’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has said that air-conditioning is probably the 20th century’s most important invention, helping to revolutionize productivity in tropical countries.
During the day, the adventurous can take their pick of activities. Those with a few hours to kill have dozens of choices. The Little India district can be reached quickly from the city’s main business areas. Singapore’s most vibrant ethnic community, with its narrow lanes of merchants selling everything from saris to spices, is rarely visited by tourists and business travelers. Those interested in fine carpets and Asian antiques should check out Tanglin Shopping Centre, a popular spot for well-heeled expatriates. It has dozens of tiny boutiques selling classical goods from all over Asia.
For dining, a number of new options have sprung up in recent years, many just a short ride from the central business district. In 2007, Dempsey Road (also known as Tanglin Hill), a district of old colonial warehouses surrounded by a jungle, was transformed into one of Singapore’s leading restaurant destinations. Popular among locals, it is virtually unknown among tourists and offers several wine bars (the Wine Company is great for intimate gatherings—make a reservation), Singapore’s best Mexican restaurant, Margaritas, and a number of other good restaurants. The area also features the recently opened RedDot, ingapore’s first local microbrewery, serving up ales that the company says are specially crafted for Singapore’s food and weather conditions. The Song of India is Singapore’s most exclusive Indian restaurant. Located in a 100-year-old bungalow on Scotts Road, it’s a short walk from the main shopping district of Orchard Road. Popular for high-powered business lunches, it offers well-spread-out tables to ensure privacy, and it has two private rooms for larger meetings. Rochester Park, a district of old bungalows that have been converted into restaurants, is another great spot for business dinners. One Rochester restaurant is an excellent choice for tapas, drinks and dinner in lush tropical surroundings. Its neighbor, North of the Border, offers food inspired by the American Southwest.
“The Singaporean entertainment industry has changed tremendously in the past few years,” says Ernest Ng, brewmaster and owner of RedDot. “With the increasing options available, the business traveler doesn’t just have to rely on central areas, such as Boat Quay in the central business district, for evening entertainment anymore. Singapore now has a number of different entertainment hubs, made up of a wide range of bars, clubs and restaurants, which offer business travelers the chance to get away from the hectic pace of the city and relax in calmer surroundings, yet still have access to exciting Singaporean nightlife activities.”
Clarke Quay is the center of Singapore’s night life, with 24-hour restaurants, bars and clubs. Packed with tourists and locals, it is perhaps one of the most international spots in Asia and the perfect place to unwind after dinner.
Singapore will continue to evolve, becoming an even more vibrant business destination, with new hotels and more dining and entertainment options. Asia can, at times, be a challenging place to do business, but Singapore will always remain the best place to cut deals—and relax afterward.
GREGORY WALDRON is a freelance writer in Singapore.