Of Singapore, and what it’s good for

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It’s been a curious, if not worrying, week for the Fast Lane’s inbox, with a bizarre mix of correspondence landing in the tray. From odd corners of the United States there were letters of support for Sarah Palin from people I’m quite convinced have never clapped eyes on this newspaper, let alone this column. Imagine the hurt I felt at being called elitist and unsympathetic to Palin’s hokey “tell it like it is” manner. DELETE!

Another reader decided to take issue with my recent comments about political correctness on the massage table and wanted to demonstrate why G-strings can look quite attractive on men. Rather than arguing his case with persuasive prose I was treated to a rear view of something that went far beyond a G-string. DELETE!

And then there have been a number of regular, sane readers who’ve been dropping me notes explaining why they’re either leaving or staying with the financial institutions that have now become their new parents. These have all been slightly soul-searching in nature and each have received the appropriate response they deserve.

I started this week on a speaking tour in Singapore, where I spent a considerable amount of time talking to people in various government ministries about the future shape and size of the city-state (you might have noticed that it doesn’t have a lot of growth options) and its opportunities as both a global player and magnet for the sharpest minds from around the world.

As the government figures out what type of people it would like to take up residence and many ex-bankers are deciding what they want to do with the rest of their lives, now seems the perfect time for the city-state to start conversations with individuals who are ready to make radical professional and lifestyle changes.

Singapore can offer excellent infrastructure, an attractive if occasionally oppressive climate, excellent housing, a nice airline for reaching the far corners of the earth and an eager ear to new business ideas. All of that talent in New York, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt can offer Singapore the bodies and brains it requires to create the new entrepreneur class it desperately needs. The government authorities may not want to market it this way but Singapore could position itself as a spiritual, tropical outpost with super high-speed broadband for bankers who want to find themselves and chart a new career trajectory.

Like virtually every other city on earth at the moment, Singapore is also hoping to woo top creative talent (architects, fashion designers, animators and digital illustrators – ­this means you) to diversify its economic base and potentially to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans to think about the sort of careers that were once off the national curriculum.

Indeed, Singapore has gone so gung-ho on all things creative that it’s building a Fame-style academy in the heart of the city to unleash the singer, dancer and sculptor that’s hiding in its youth. Do you feel there’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary series in all of this? Potentially even a prize at the Sundance Film Festival?

Yet rather than focusing on building a hothouse for creative minds, Singapore should bring in all the best financial whizz kids and play to its great national strength –­ service. Marry all those under-utilised MBAs to work on a new a strategy that also gives them a little licence to indulge their more artistic side as well and Singapore could be ripe for an economic renaissance. Given that so many bankers harbour fantasies about becoming the next Adrian Zecha and frequently talk about packing up their desks and moving to a sunny climate to open the best hotel in the world, now’s the perfect time to follow that dream. As this column has long maintained, few brands know the art of delivering peerless service in a market where virtually every consumer up and down the chain is crying out for better treatment from the businesses they support. If Singapore could own service, education and training as a key element of its national brand, it would fill a niche that only Japan can currently lay claim to.

As the regional hub for so many service-centric businesses, this is Singapore’s chance to not simply talk about being a service economy but become the author of a model that other nations would want to follow. Its national carrier alone has enough senior management to take over training contracts for other airlines, cruise ship companies, hotel groups and retailers. With so many hotel groups also using Singapore for regional HQs, there’s a whole faculty just waiting to stand in front of lecture halls to explain how recognition, attention to detail and graciousness are all the lost arts that need to be restored to build better brands. Fold in all those bankers who want a hotel group or airline of their own and Singapore could have a whole new raison d’être.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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