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Singapore looks to India, China to drive growth

February 21, 2003 12:44 IST

Thirty-four minutes means a lot to Albert Tjoeng.

In that time a passenger should have stepped off a plane at Singapore's Changi Airport, passed through immigration, picked up the luggage and walked into the steamy, thick air outside.

Tjoeng, a manager with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, recites that target as one of the defining successes of Asia's third-biggest air hub.

"It's a target, but it's realistic," he says.

The same could be said, government planners say, of the city state's plans to seek new sources of growth overseas to make up for a slowdown in its traditional mainstays of manufacturing and shipping -- underscored by recent layoffs by port operator PSA Corp and local electronics champion Chartered Semiconductor.

To take up the slack, Singapore wants to export its reputation for efficiency; it hopes aviation, telecommunications and home-building among others will form a springboard for expansion across Asia, especially into India and China.

The government and its legion of state-linked companies are sizing up infrastructure projects in India, airports in China and Thailand, and possibly an alliance with Richard Branson's discount airline Virgin Blue in Australia after taking a dominant position in Indonesian mobile telecommunications.

"These investments will happen on a fairly haphazard basis, but I think you will see more of them," said Peter Baldwin, managing director of Intercedent Asia, a Singapore consultancy. "There is an over-arching strategy behind that."

Singapore's offshore investments have already generated an external economy worth around US$ 200 billion, according to Morgan Stanley economist Daniel Lian, who says the country could invest a further US$ 10 billion to $ 15 billion a year over the next 12 to 15 years.

"In another decade and a half, Singapore will connect China, India and Southeast Asia and beyond," the government said in a report this month outlining a 15-year plan for the republic.

Underscoring its determination to rev up its offshore investment engine, Singapore has sealed five free-trade deals in two years, including a pact with Australia signed on Monday.


But the path carries risks. Singapore has already botched telecommunications forays in Malaysia and Hong Kong, it lost heavily in New Zealand's aviation sector and its biggest bank, DBS Bank Holdings Ltd, has been accused of overpaying for certain overseas assets.

Another ill-fated venture that cost billions was an industrial park in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, worth US$ 20 billion to $ 30 billion and designed as a miniature version of Singapore.

The park bled money for seven years until Singapore cut its stake in 2001 to 35 per cent from 65 per cent, complaining that local authorities had undermined it by building a rival, lower-cost park nearby that siphoned away investment while using roads and infrastructure built with Singaporean money.

Economists say the bitter taste of that experience lingers in Singapore's dealings in China -- its fifth-biggest trading partner -- as the two discuss a possible role for Changi Airport in developing air hubs in fast-growing Chinese cities.

Singapore is considering managing or developing airports in Kunming, Qingdao, Hangzhou and Chengdu, a Chinese embassy official in Singapore said. Officials from Kunming Airport and Changi will sit down for talks next month, he added.

Looking to India

A new area of focus is India, with which Singapore plans to open free trade talks in April.

"Earlier the tilt was almost one way towards China. Increasingly the tilt seems to be shifting towards India," said Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist at Deutsche Bank in Singapore.

Singapore developer CESMA International last week launched a S$ 70 million ($ 40 million) project to build homes near Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh state, and a senior official said other contracts could be in the pipeline.

"There is a proper legal system in place, and there is adequate manpower to do the manual work," said Raheed Nargund, regional director of South Asia, Middle East and Africa at state trade development agency International Enterprise Singapore.

He said Singapore was in talks for mass housing contracts in Hyderbad, Chennai and Bangalore, though nothing was confirmed.

Aviation is another priority after Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong returned from Thailand last month with tentative plans for a joint-venture regional airline with the Thai government based in the northern resort town of Chiang Mai.

But industry analysts say this looks unrealistic.

"I don't attach much to it, to tell you to the truth," said Philip Wickham, aviation analyst at ING Financial Markets.

Australia was a more likely investment target, he said, possibly through a venture between Singapore Airlines Ltd and Branson's Virgin Blue, which announced last week it was exploring using Singapore as a regional hub.

"The only thing that is available to them is to somehow work with Virgin Blue," said Wickham. "I'm not sure if they want to acquire an actual equity stake in them or if it's just going to be cooperation via code shares."

He said an Australian alliance would make strategic sense for Singapore Airlines, which lost a key source of traffic from Australia when affiliate Ansett Australia went under in 2001.

Morgan Stanley's Lian also highlights neighbouring Indonesia as potentially attractive now for Singapore, as it was before President Suharto's 1998 resignation sparked unrest there.

Singapore has dominated Indonesia's mobile phone market since government-linked companies last year paid what some describe as 'the Singapore premium,' or prices far above market value, for big stakes in PT Indosat and PT Telkomsel.

Although the premiums raised questions about the cost of aggressive expansion abroad, some analysts say Singapore has little choice but to dig deeper into its pockets.

"Singapore is a country that has run for a while and continues to run very large current account surpluses, so clearly reinvesting this money is a key part of Singapore's strategy of building into the future," said Sanyal at Deutsche Bank.

Jason Szep in Singapore
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