What made colonial Singapore a thriving port city and what does that mean for you?

In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. 2 years later, in 1821, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port, providing ready access to population from other centers.

By 1860, however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. In the 1870s, Singapore became the main hub for sorting and export of rubber, a major commodity for global economic development.

By the close of 19th Century, Singapore was a thriving hub in the region. The economy grew eightfold between 1873 and 1913. Before there was the Singapore we know today, the port city was already a major trading hub. This wasn’t purely luck nor a matter of domestic economic policy. So what happened through these years?

Reducing Piracy

Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.

With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories — Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca.

The Dutch Navy was implicitly given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. In fact, the Dutch greatly expanded their presence in the straits. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. The informal security coordination in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.

Injection of Human Capital

By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port.

The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.

The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore.

Why is this important to us as an individual?

At an individual level, this holds 2 key lessons for us in terms of thinking about jobs and careers:

  1. You want to be very selective in the environment that you subject yourself to if you have enough choice and control. Put yourself in a safe environment where you surround yourself with a friendly support network.
  2. You want to build up your capabilities and be proactive in growing your knowledge and skills relevant to the network you have built up.

Where you find yourself in a hostile or personally unfavourable environment, have no qualms about withdrawing yourself from it. There is no point in spending time and efforts fending off criticisms and attacks with limited resources you have. Better to find a new environment and context where you can be nurtured and grow. Success often begets success as the initial value you develop attracts others to contribute to your development. Just make sure you don’t get so addicted to it that you begin to fear failure.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back focusing only on the economic history aspects.

Stories on Medium

So I tried writing on Medium, mostly rewriting some of my older ideas and then putting them up on Medium. Turns out, I’ve been more consistent and passionate about writing on my own blog and publishing on a platform that feels like it is owned by me rather than someone else’s platform. It is probably for the same reason that I have been hesitant to put out too much content on Linkedin or even Instagram.

There’s just something that feels not right about content sitting on some platform out there with an implicit promise that your content will be available for you to access but in reality, some point when someone decides to flick the switch, it’ll be gone.

And because it might all be gone, I’m republishing the materials I put out on Medium on this blog so as to preserve them. Of course, they are re-writes of works already put here before so don’t be surprised. In any case, the next few blog posts will be from those republishing.

Small market II

Exploring transitions of market sizes is something I’m keen to examine a bit more. The richness of capitalist market economy comes not so much from the price competition but competition along other dimensions. That actually is not that amenable to economic analysis despite all the support that traditional economic analysis had given weight to the beauty of the market economy and its efficiencies.

The innovations of the market economy actually requires dynamism rather than static equilibrium. And over the course of the so-called dynamic equilibria, there is actually some degree of disequilibria. More of our experiences are with the changing patterns such as prices, proliferation of new products and shifts in market messaging than with having clear repetitive routines.

There is to some extent a predictability around the fact that people will be fed and services will be provided without central coordination but these are just scarffolding of a much richer and vibrant structure.

So small markets becomes larger by growing in the demand base or demand groups, or when they merge into other broader base markets. These shifts reflect that even the basic fundamentals around our traditional analysis of markets should be oriented not necessarily based on demographics, a need or particular behaviours. The boundaries between markets are more fluid than we think. It takes broader thinking to be able to conquer markets from the perspective of business and to analyse them through the changing times.

Small market

Singapore is a small market, everyone would say. Yet it imports and exports so much goods and services it would be considered an important market for different businesses. Take bunkering for example; it is the largest single point of sales for the refueling of vessels in the world.

So how do markets grow? What drives them? It depends on who are the customers, and what grows their numbers or their demand in the goods and services of the market. How do supply help to drive demand? Be it through advertising, increasing distribution and availability, etc.

On the other hand, we got to think about how markets shrink as well. How did the market for video or movie rental shrink in face of the growth of streaming? When would an original big market be considered small for the incumbent to start looking elsewhere?

Market for green premium II

Airlines are in the business of transporting people around. Or maybe it’s about curating and creating the best experience in air travel? Or about building a brand? Or is it about bringing people to places and catalysing activities, businesses for locations that would otherwise be overlooked by travellers? Seen that way, the fuel cost of an airline would always be considered a cost. Therefore, to keep cost low, or deliver the greatest profits, the airline will see their fuel as a commodity.

What if the choice of fuel they use starts impacting the customer segments they are targeting or they can serve? What if using sustainable aviation fuel allows them to attract more premium customers? What if they could sell their air tickets at a higher price when they are demonstrably emitting less carbon dioxide? And what if doing so also help them comply with some ICAO requirements?

The market for green premium turns various cost parameters in businesses into a tool for something else. There’s an opportunity to use these new parameters to disrupt the business. Years ago, the low-cost carrier disrupted some of the most traditional airline businesses. Would a low-carbon carrier do the same? What other elements of the whole airline business can be refashioned to fit the whole sustainable, low-carbon identity?

Market for green premium

The energy transition and decentralisation of energy had quietly started shifting the capital markets since close to a decade ago. While the traditional energy players continue to compare the cost of green energy against the cost of their own fossil fuel based energy, they found no reason to diversify their business. Even in face of some subsidy, or some Feed-in-Tariffs, they were reluctant to invest.

There was no scale, and they thought they were going to face more competition and erosion of any green premiums they could secure. But then the capital holders started taking notice. The projects were simple enough to invest into. Solar farms had minimal requirements from an operational perspective, and represented to some degree a pure capital good where almost all the cost are paid upfront for a stream of revenue in long term.

From a risk perspective, it was safe. And so long-term funds which needed safe investments at moderate yields started piling in. The utility scale projects expanded, driving down the cost of equipment, and fostered more innovation there. Here is a case where, the technical simplicity of the operations enabled investors to bypass the typical operating businesses to get into the underlying projects themselves. All of a sudden, it is not about looking for the premium anymore. Because you’re alright with scale.

Sometimes, growing and developing a market is about finding customers who are willing to pay a higher price; but other times, it is about finding investors who are willing to accept a lower expected return for other attributes.

Projection vectors

I had a very interesting conversation with my colleague about projections of reality. When you take a picture of a scene, what you are doing, is to capture and preserve the light that is reflected off the three-dimensional scene and projected on a flat two-dimensional surface such as a film, or a sensor chip. Using mirrors, lenses, and all the other photonic gizmos, we are able to shrink the pictures, create effects on the projection, or to just make edits after the projection has been made.

What happened however, was that a three-dimensional reality is captured somehow in a two-dimensional world. The picture, is a projection of reality at some point of time. That is what we were referring to as projections.

We were speaking more about how we perceive the world as projections – cast not on a surface but in our minds. Each and everyone of us experiences the world differently but the richness of the world is not fully captured by the experience we have because we are limited in our ability to perceive. It is as though our ability to perceive each represents a dimension. Not just the five senses of sights, sounds, smell, taste and touch but there are psychological lenses, cultural lenses by which we perceive and experience the world, and recognise patterns formed from combinations of those senses, and our logical or irrational interpretation of reality, or even events, how they had been sequenced, how they line up in the dimension of time.

If the richness of reality contains N-dimensions, then our ability to perceive is often limited to (N-x) dimensions, where x is an unknown non-negative number and potentially really large. We don’t get to really experience reality, only what can be captured by that (N-x)-dimensional hyperplane that will never truly encapsulate the contents of the N-dimensional hyperspace that the reality consist of.

I hope to be able to explain this better some day – but for now, this hopefully suffice to help encourage me to develop further my capabilities to grow my hyperplane of perception.

Manufactured feel

When we travel, we visit places of interests, stay in hotels or some kind of accommodation with “curated experiences” and follow guides to eat the popular foods in a place. Is this sort of traveling about experiencing the local life or about manufacturing the feeling or a “foreign experience”?

It’s probably both.

When does an experience feel manufactured? And is that a bad thing? After all, we manufacture things because they are not readily available in nature. We might be the only specie that tries to manufacture feelings or experiences or put ourselves through something radically different than our “everyday life”. Monkeys don’t go on exchange programmes with a different tribe; Donkeys don’t try to live the day in the life of a camel.

So what do we really gain? Why do we dread the everyday? What is wrong with routine life?

Learning from mistakes

The tricky part about trying to learn from mistakes is to overly focus on the mistakes rather than the lessons that are being taught by the mistakes. The lessons are often things you discover upon making the mistake; they represent new knowledge or information that you previously weren’t aware of. Yet we rarely dwell on those; because we’ve been told that finding those ‘reasons’ are actually just finding ‘excuses’.

A few good questions to tease out the lessons to learn would be:

  • What is something I did not know that I now know, having made the mistake?
  • What new relationship between variables did I discover upon making the mistake?
  • What are some patterns that should raise red flags for me in future?
  • What are false red flags created by this mistake that may cause me to be overly worried or cautions about actions in future? How do I tell?

Moving past blame and finding fault after discovering a mistake is not easy, but it starts with a mindset that is focused on learning, and moving forward. To release oneself from the emotional downward spirals, diving deeper into some of these questions is useful.

Healthy competition and values

I was put in a system where we were regularly assessed relative to our cohort, made to feel anxious about our position amongst our peers, and put in an artificial environment where we were taught to improve through ‘healthy competition’.

The society’s definition of healthy competition does get out of hand. Guardian recently ran a piece commenting on the number of ‘Forbes 30 Under 30’ featured people who landed in jail or at least trouble with the law.

It’s not just that competition gets out of hand but a question of what kind of values we are sending young people into the society with. Beyond the glamorization of the ideas around hustling and ‘faking it till you make it‘, there is clearly a lack of clear direction on the moral boundaries that should govern the claims made by companies to get ahead in terms of creating investor interest, or customer demand. Is it not time we draw a line, and re-align definition of success with actual activities that will move society and the world forward?