Drawing parallels between Dubai and Singapore is inevitable with their towering skyscrapers, diverse expat community and dependence on trade and commerce — but perhaps only one deserves the title of truly international
Singapore is aware that
people are always comparing Dubai with the city-state on the edge of Malaysia. And no, Singapore doesn’t like the comparison very much.
And yet, it is hard not to miss the parallels when you get to Singapore. There are the superficial similarities: the tall, gleaming buildings; the fancy airport (not unlike the Emirates terminal); the glittering hotels; the broad roads; and the warm, humid air.
But the parallels go deeper. Like Dubai, Singapore is a city based on trade and not on natural resources or mineral wealth. It is a city full of people who buy and sell things. And its citizens are more interested in commerce than in industry. They would rather import all the industrial products they need rather than bother to make them within the city-state.
Like Dubai, Singapore has long offered itself up as a home for expatriates and guest workers of all kinds. When Hong Kong returned to the Chinese, Singapore made a determined pitch to the financial community. It advertised its proficiency in English, its absence of cumbersome regulation and its can-do spirit.
But the Singapore economy is run by expatriates at a much more fundamental level. Because life in Singapore is so expensive, many of those who keep the wheels of the Singapore machine running do not actually live in Singapore at all. They prefer to live across the border in Malaysia, where accommodation can be a third of the price that Singapore’s landlords charge. Each morning, they drive on motorcycles or take buses from Malaysia into Singapore. When their work is done, they go back to spend the night in their own country.
Anybody who knows Dubai will recognise the similarities. Like Singapore, Dubai runs on the basis of expatriates. Its shops, banks and hotels would be finished but for the expatriate workers who keep it going. Singapore brags that it welcomes anyone who is willing to work hard. Dubai makes the same sort of claim.
So, why then does Singapore react so badly to the comparisons with Dubai?
Partly, it is history. In a famous essay, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that Singapore’s success is almost unparalleled. Sen looked at the condition of two of Asia’s great cities — Singapore and Calcutta — in 1947 when India became independent. In those days, Calcutta was one of the most significant cities in the British Empire. Singapore, on the other hand, was a sleepy backwater of no great distinction. But, as Sen demonstrates, Calcutta is now a collapsing city of little international consequence. Singapore, on the other hand, is one of the great cities of the world.
Singaporeans are proud of this achievement. So, they resent it when people talk about the success of other cities. Sen took 1947 as his starting point. But, if we were to take a more recent reference point, then Dubai’s success seems even more incredible than Singapore’s. In 1967, Singapore was well on its way to becoming a globally significant city. Dubai, on the other hand, lagged far behind Beirut, then the most glamorous city in the Middle East. And within the Gulf, it even lagged behind Bahrain.
But in the years that followed, Dubai came out front to surpass all these cities and to emerge as a global competitor to Singapore. Nobody likes competition, least of all the Chinese — and Singapore is essentially a Chinese city.
Ah, the Chinese! Singapore goes on and on about its multi-ethnic character but the truth is it is a Chinese city ruled by Chinese people. The Chinese make up 80 per cent of the population of Singapore. They dominate its culture and language. Though Singapore once even pushed the slogan ‘Instant Asia’ to promote itself, this fooled no one. The rest of Asia sneered as we do when strange claims are made — like when Australians refer to themselves as Asians.
Finally, that to me is the great difference between Singapore and Dubai. When Singapore calls itself an international city, we chuckle at the audacity of the Chinese. But Dubai is a genuinely international city. The Emiratis may hold the reins of power (as they should, it is their country) but Dubai’s ethos is entirely cosmopolitan. It is a city that I have once described as a plush lounge at an international airport. People who lived in Dubai were not best pleased with the description, but I meant it nicely. There is nowhere in the world as international as Dubai.
On the other hand, the predominantly Chinese character of Singapore works in the city’s favour. There is a distinct sense of tradition and Singapore’s ethos is rooted in Chinese culture. For instance, though the city boasts of much fancier restaurants than Dubai, the best food in Singapore is Chinese. That’s not true of Dubai. I doubt if anyone would claim that Arab cuisine is at the centre of the Dubai gourmet experience.
What works better? A city-state that is largely Chinese but plays down its ethnicity? Or one that is entirely Arab but makes a distinct effort to be truly international?
I guess it all boils down to personal choice. And I know which city I prefer.
(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow
Vir’s other writings, visit