Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Singapore Sling - II (The Perfectionist)

Each time I visit Singapore, I am fascinated by the green grass and the beautiful trees, flowers, even shrubs. You may ask why, considering that there is so much more to see or do – like a visit to Clarke or Sentosa Island ! Well yes, but let explain. In the 1960s, when premier Lee Kuan Yew decided he wanted Singapore to become a garden city, he personally got interested in the subject of soil and vegetation, trees and drainage, climate and fertilizers.

He apparently became so involved in the subject that he even found out how in France, the broad tree lined boulevards were possible because a drainage system had been built below the pavements.

When he saw beautiful rolling meadows in New Zealand, he asked for the services of two experts from there under the Colombo Plan technical assistance scheme. Lee was told that Singapore did not have a grassland climate in which rain fell gently from the skies. Instead, being part of the equatorial region, it experienced torrential rainfall that would wash off the topsoil and with it the vital nutrients necessary for strong plant growth.

Under The Flyover

I know this is getting a little too detailed but do bear with me – In an equatorial forest, as Lee learnt, with big tall trees forming a canopy, the rain water drips down. But in Singapore, the trees had been chopped down, it would all come down in a big wash. So Lee decided that fertilizers would replenish the soil and began the task of making the compost from rubbish dumps, adding calcium and lime where the ground was too acidic.

Years later, when Singapore was already an acknowledged success, Lee asked his officials to find out which plants could survive below the flyovers where the sun did not shine much. And instead of having to water these plants regularly, which was expensive, he got his officials to find a way to channel water from the roads, after filtering it to get rid of the oil and grime from the traffic above.

When the flyovers became broader, shutting out the light completely, he ensured the roads were split into two so there would be a gap in the middle with enough space for sunshine and rain to seep through and greenery and vegetation to thrive below. “I sent them on missions all along the Equator and the tropical, sub tropical zones, looking for new types of trees, plants, creepers and so on. From Africa, the Caribbean, Latin, Middle and Central America, we’ve come back with new plants. It’s a very small sum. But if you get the place greened up, if you get all those creepers up, you take away the heat, you will have a different city,” he said.

A Perfectionist At The Top

Now, having driven up and down Singapore, I can tell you that that the heat has not exactly gone away. My father used to tell me when he visited Singapore in the seventies that it was just like Madras (Chennai). Hot as hell and humid too. And yet, the greenery does have a calming and maybe cooling effect. Maybe it would be hotter if it were not for the greenery, considering Singapore is closer to the equator than Madras. In any case, Ive never heard anyone really complain about the heat in Singapore.

I am sure over the years, there have been other issues to consider, like pollution, clean drinking water and so on. Each of these civic issues is a case study in itself. So let me close this one with this quote from Lee. “A well kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders the people’s ability to organize and to be systematic. The grass has got to be mown every other day, the trees have to be tended, the flowers in the garden have to be looked after so they know this place gives attention to detail.”

And that’s why I look at the trees, shrubs and manicured grass as I drive through Singapore. Because I know that they didn’t just happen to be like this. Rather because someone right at the top has been monitoring this effort closely, for over 30 years. A perfectionist who is worth studying, individually and collectively.

(Material On Lee Kuan Yew Largely Sourced From The Aspen Institute Readings)

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Singapore Sling - I

Somewhere on the fringe of Singapore's Chinatown, Ronald and his family run a highly specialised `hobby supplies' shop. I've been in touch with Ronald over the last few months, on phone and on mail so it was a pleasure to catch up with him last week, on, I might add, a particularly balmy Singapore afternoon.

Like most Singaporeans, Ronald did a compulsory stint with the army. He also happens to be a mechanical engineer by training, allowing him to ply his trade with considerable precision and understanding. Particularly when it comes to explaining stuff to a novice like me. And Ronald, who is evidently much younger than me, can be very patient.

As we got talking, I asked Ronald what his present customer profile was like. "Oh," he said, "from all over." I said you mean Singapore and Malaysia. "No, all over," he said. I knew he had many Indian clients like me. So, India as well I gathered. "Phillipines, Indonesia, Thailand as well," he said. And this was a barely 750 square feet shop, obviously with a larger warehouse somewhere at the back end.

A Regional Presence

Ronald's firm has grown in the last few years but not physically. He has a web presence. Its not exactly the Amazon of this business but its adding scale and sophistication as Ronald and his colleagues and family members figure their way around. But its reputation, even in the pre ecommerce days has spanned the region, across south and south east Asia.

Ronald's success and prominence is testimony to the hardwork and ingenuity of the Singaporeans in general and the Chinese in specific. But the larger credit must go to Lee Kuan Yew who built the blueprint for Singapore. I recall a memorable interview on Channel News Asia where he told the interviewer how one of Singapore's biggest advantages was the fact that it flanked a closed and yet potentiallly powerful economy like India. Like how Hong Kong benefited from China's seclusion. The challenge now of course, he said, was to re-invent.

Which Singapore is doing admirably. From shopping destination to leisure destination (in this heat !) to world class airline hub to biotechnology destination and so on. Standing in Ronald's little shop, I was struck by the opportunity lost not just all these years but even today. Lets face it, there might be ten guys who are smarter than Ronald between Delhi and Mumbai but not one who can be as nimble and responsive.

36-Hour Delivery

Let me give you an example. I call Ronald on a Monday noon and say, hey, can you send me so and so. "Sure," he says. And the component is on my table at 9.30 am on Wednesday morning. His mail confirming the order often arrives after the parcel. And I can track the parcel's progress from the moment it leaves Ronald's shop on Monday evening thanks to DHL !

For an Indian entrepreneur to do this will be extremely tough if not impossible.
One problem is obviously the infrastructure. The bigger problem is tarrifs, customs, duties and all the miserable paperwork that goes with it. I don't imagine a small mom and pop shop achieving such turnarounds in consigment handling, maybe big firms with well-oiled (on the customs' end) can.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Ronalds in Singapore, Hong Kong and many other countries who have benefited from India's pre liberalisation myopia. Thanks to leaders like Lee Kuan Yew who ran SWOT analysis for their nations at the right time. There are thousands of Ronalds in India as well. I am sure you know many of them, like I do. Now only if they had someone to lookout for them, in this globalised world.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Gatecrashers Of New Delhi Airport

Am traveling again, this time I pass through the hallowed gates of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. If you want to showcase how Incredible India is, this is the classic one. And it makes me wonder whether the ownership really transferred into private hands. Anyway, the experience kicks off nice and early as I drive up the incline. A long traffic jam has developed. My driver alternately jams the accelerator and brakes to stay in one place. And its raining heavily.

The airport is packed with people, even more than Mumbai and Hyderabad airports, whose vast collections of crowds usually amaze me. Like all other airports in India, roughly 95% of the folks who visit the airport ain’t going anywhere. They are here to see off the other 5%, or is it 2% in New Delhi. Most of them travel very long distances.

Passengers like me are a hopeless minority. In every way possible. For a moment I thought I would give up and return, so challenging did the task of entering the terminal appear. Then I decided to fight my way through. After a careful study of my relative position to enemy flanks, I began to heave-ho. Angry stares accompanied me all the way. Several extremely able-bodied (I shall not say from where) gentlemen focussed on a lone and distant waving figure inside the terminal looked mightily inconvenienced.

Line & Length

There is just one long line to enter the immigration area. And it takes a long time. Guess why ? Not because the immigration guys are dragging their feet. Not quite. Because for every four guys from the line that walk over, there is one who will jump it or attempt to barge through. Two familes of four with howling children were `whisked’ through as I watched. Then followed a pot-bellied guy with a `pan' stained mouth - smiling sheepishly at no one in particular.

An American (not Indian origin) businessman - smart suit n boots - too tried to gatecrash as I watched. He went a step further. He begged the lady from United to please help him through. For what reason I could not fathom. She heard him, nodded her head, he pleaded again and then after much thought, she stepped forward and requested the immigration officer managing the line to let him through. I wonder what the excuse was. Maybe First Class. But there is no separate line.

Of course, despite my best efforts I didn’t see any ministerial entourage (with or without a minister) sail through immigration, security et al. After all, these fine gentlemen and gentlewomen (whose passport pictures may or may not tally) do not need to stand in any line. Or even bother to jump one.

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