Moving solar around

You might have seen solar panels ground-mounting on vacant land in Singapore. Today I was on a cab when the driver told me about this and thought it is such a waste of land in Singapore.

So I explained the idea that our government agencies had and the tender they designed. The projects are actually to maximise the use of land rather than waste them. In Singapore, there are plots which are left vacant for future development – they may not be empty for the full period of a solar farm, but at any one time in the island of Singapore, there should be enough space to hold a certain amount of ground-mounted solar. So the plan is to move the panels around to a vacant lot once an existing solar farm land is needed for development.

Such a model seems common sensical but requires a great deal of coordination and detailed thinking. But in the grand scheme of trying to produce more green electricity for our island state, this is not exactly a great solution. And this is an example of the challenge that Singapore faces when it comes to being innovative and scaling solutions. We have requirement for unique solutions that serves us well but probably no one else – nor are we able to easily adapt our solutions to other places.

Not sure who else would want to be moving their solar panels around.

Doing the Tough Stuff


Organic Growth for companies. Most of our Singapore’s small medium enterprises grow organically despite the introduction of much Merger & Acquisition support from the Singapore government such as M&A Tax Allowance (which was enhanced following the 2015 Budget) . In challenging times, even larger companies may still want to conserve cash to be invested internally rather than go on an M&A ‘spree’ – that is if they believe that they will be able to emerge larger after the temporary downturn.

To the end of doing the tough stuff called sticking to organic growth, McKinsey has a couple of pretty good questions to ask oneself when planning strategically for value creation along short to long-term timescale.

  • How balanced is our portfolio? If we take our portfolio of growth and innovation initiatives and plot them against NOW NEW NEXT, how balanced does the distribution look? Do we have a perspective on which of the six “growth plays” would be successful in our business?
  • Who is thinking about disruption? Are we as systematic in NEXT as we are in NOW? Is anyone tasked with disrupting our core business—or are we leaving it up to competitors? What are we doing to explore additive business models?
  • Are we limiting our horizons? In exploring NEW opportunities, do we impose limiting mind-sets on how we define consumers, our category, or the addressable channels?
  • Do we use advantaged insights? Do we rely on the same data and insights as our competitors—or do we have a source of distinctiveness?
  • Are we agile enough? Have we been able to accelerate our time-to-consumer and time-to-market? Or are we still stuck with cumbersome and slow innovation processes?

Source: Now, New, Next: How growth champions create new value.

Ultimately, these questions may also start leading companies to consider acquisition in the mid to long term horizon where threat of disruption may force even very niche companies to place some hedging bets through incubation of related peripheral technologies.

Lucky Breaks for the Port


Several lucky breaks provided a huge push for Singapore growth, escalating volume of east-west trade, and raising the importance of Singapore as a trading hub. For 50 years from 1830, the world saw several significant changes that changed the global economic conditions and the shifting political weights leading to further entrenchment of Singapore’s position a major global port.

Improvements in seafaring technologies

Seafaring technology was improving rapidly after the emergence of Singapore as a port; the first experimental steamships started in the early 1800s and then by 1830s, regional steamboats were running around in Europe as well as along the coasts and rivers of United States of Americas. Ocean-going steamships followed and the first steamship (by Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Co.) carrying mails (passengers, and parcels) arrived in Singapore in 1845.

Steamships shortened the voyage between the east and west significantly, whilst it used to take months (and would vary according to seasons) to sail from London to Singapore, the advent of steamships reduced this journey to approximately 40 days throughout the year. Improvements in the next decade would shave the time down to a single month. This drove up not only the trading activities but also encouraged more visitors to Singapore who would hang around for a short-term stay.

Opium Wars & opening of China market

The end of the first Opium War concluded in 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking that forcibly opened up the Chinese market to imports from the west. The Chinese market proved attractive to the Europeans and even the Americans who were (unfortunately) buying huge volumes of opium in Turkey to be sold in China. Some of these opium of course ended up within the Singapore market but that is a story for another day.

The ceding of Hong Kong to the British provided a permanent base in the South China sea, further providing for this whole string of territories that help to connect the west to the east for British merchants. Trade between the west and the east grew significantly as a result and these trade flows all will have to pass through Singapore at least for some services.

The turmoil during the First and Second Opium wars also contributed to mass immigration of Chinese in search of more stable lives and also jobs. This particular wave of immigration ensured the dominance of the Chinese ethnic group on the island and also provided a huge youthful workforce with a taste for hardship and hunger for improvements. This labour base ensured that trade services develop and there were sufficient crew to service the incoming vessels.

Opening of Suez Canal

The opening of Suez Canal in 1869 provided further push to east-west trade through shortening of the voyage between Europe and Asia. Trading ships no longer had to sail down to the Cape of Good Hope and up again towards the Gulf of Aden. Trade volume through Singapore almost doubled just within the single year progressing from 1869 to 1870.

The status of a free port continued to attract trading ships as well as merchants. The rival ports of Jakarta (then called Batavia) and Manila levied tariffs and thus were less attractive. American, Jewish, Armenian, Indian, Chinese and Arab traders started setting up trading houses in Singapore. The diversity and multiculturalism was at the heart of this colony; just as its growth and development was powered by the world events. In that sense, Singapore was never quite ‘left-behind’ nor ever unplugged from this world system after the British established themselves.

Raffles’ Port City


In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. In 2 years, 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. This wasn’t purely luck or a matter of economic policy. Several things the British did was particularly important for encouraging the trade flows through Singapore and pushing the growth of Singapore into an important center for trade in the region.

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 given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. Stepping up security in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.

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. The strength of governance has always been an important quality our growth has been attributed to – and it seems to have dated back way before the country’s independence.

Singapore Economic History


During my days doing my Masters, I had always wanted to start working on studying Singapore’s Economic history, primarily because we should be learning from the way we developed and not blindly attributing it to some brilliance on the part of individuals or organisation. To break down the black box and understand the practice of growth is something I endeavour as an Economist while the reluctance to attribute our development to specific individuals but rather to consider it down to naturalistic observations about policy, culture, and zeitgeist is my responsibility as an informed voter.

For one, the idea of Singapore as a location suited for trade really started way earlier than we initially had thought; and it has gone by various names: Sabana (2nd Century), Pulau Ujong (3rd Century), Simha-pura (transliterated somehow to ‘Singapura’ – 11th-13th Century and used later on as well), Tamasek (around 1330s), Temasek (circa 1689) and finally Singapore. It gained some importance as a port in 14th Century with trading by merchants as far as China, gaining some immigrants along the way; subsequently as a regional port under the Sultanate of Johor in 16-17th Century. In 1613 however, some Portuguese supposedly destroyed a settlement around the main river, killing most commercial activities on the island until Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819, reviving the port status of the territory.

It was indeed, no special original brilliance of Sir Stamford Raffles that helped Singapore become positioned as a entre-port; rather, his effort was the recognition of the need for British navy protection, garnering the resources required to build up this port and rallying support to keep this port a tax-free one that would help enjoy endless flow of ships and traders. The status of a free port was definitely innovation within the British Empire at that time. This particular innovation we inherited much later and became an important economic policy.

The Polarity of the Internet

Like Poles Agree...

In today’s The Straits Times, Rachel Chang comments about “the power of the Net to polarise”.

She cites the examples of how vocal people on Facebook and their blogs, who have publicised their political views or displayed their political affiliations, have been slammed and harasssed online to the point that one such blogger stopped writing. The empowering voice of the Internet appears to work like a double-edged sword, threatening to slit the throat of the person wielding it in the face of the majority or the powerful.

It scares me sometimes how polarised views on the Internet can get. There does not seem to be room for compromise or discourse, it is very much an “us against them” game in terms of opinion rather than the moderated views across the spectrum. Chang quotes Cass Sunstein of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for his view that people who “interact with others who share the same views… tend to become more extreme”. Of course, “the opposite is also true”, but at least looking at some of the incidents Chang has had to cover for The Straits Times, it appears as if the former applies more than the latter.

I can very much feel for myself this polarity when I visit The Temasek Review. It is considered a source that is less influenced by the government (as opposed to The Straits Times, which some may deem to be a government propagandist body) but I am seeing quite a lot of critical anti-government writing. Ever since I started visiting this website, my rosy views about the govenrment have been somewhat tainted, not in a bad way. At very least, I feel as if I am considering other non-governmental viewpoints that might reallly be the voice of the people and not just what the government feeds to us via the press. It is scary, however, how netizens slam each other for their views, be it pro-PAP or anti-PAP. It is rather heartening that there is much debate about Singapore’s future, and by and large discussion there is rather measured. It can get disturbing when emotions are flared up, as I notice in this write-up. I dare not express my views on this website for fear of being flamed to death by both pro-PAP and anti-PAP netizens.

Democracy… certainly brings about a cacophony that needs to be understood and tolerated, for all in the society to benefit. Hopefully with all the debate online and offline, people will come to a better understanding of what they want for their society. And it must mean dangerous times if arguments on the Internet spill over into real life and disrupt society.

So in essence… take heed online.

And just like Chang, I must add the disclaimer that I expect people to “shoot me nasty, unsigned email messages after reading this column”, if only just to pre-empt comments considering the nature of my writing.