Singapore has always chased superlatives – from the world’s best airport to the planet’s largest glass greenhouse, the city-state pursues excellence with evangelical fervour.
Now it is setting in motion its “Smart Nation” initiative, the brainchild of incumbent prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. A wide-reaching and highly ambitious project, it is aimed at tackling social issues, healthcare, environmental sustainability, urban planning and transport through data collection via sensors implanted in every home, road, office and public space.
Over the coming years, Singapore will be rolling out self-driving cars, remote health monitoring and e-learning. “The goal is to bring our universities, research institutes, start-ups, government and investors together with a shared mission of tackling difficult challenges,” says Steve Leonard, executive deputy chairman of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), which is overseeing the implementation of the programme.
Those who know and love Singapore won’t be surprised by this eagerness to road-test such technologies across an entire country. This is perhaps the most aspirational nation on the planet, with an ethnically diverse population on a quest to seek out new and better ways of doing things.
Singapore was a British colony from 1826 until 1959, when the nation state’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, took power on a mandate of quelling racial tensions, providing public housing, eradicating corruption and promoting economic growth.
When he passed away in March last year, Singaporeans turned out in their droves to mourn the man who steered them from poverty and political upheaval into the economic success story of Southeast Asia. For the past ten years, the country has ranked first in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index.
Leonard says: “The building of Singapore into a world-class city-state has been the result of a concerted effort over decades, and technology has been a vital foundation.” Last year, it topped US-based Ookla’s Net Index report for having the world’s fastest broadband internet, while Tufts University in Massachusetts named Singapore the top and fastest-changing digital economy.
Singaporeans already benefit from gigabit fibre connectivity, which has been a powerful incentive for businesses entering the country. Now, the fact that researchers can plug into the 80 per cent of the country’s population who live in government-owned housing has far-reaching implications for healthcare. The IDA is already looking into how the “Internet of Things” (web-wired gadgets such as smart fridges that automatically order food for you when you’re running low) can assist citizens at home, or even alert family members if an elderly person has a fall.
Singapore is the world’s third-most densely populated nation, with almost 8,000 people per sq km (5.5 million in total), but only about 15 per cent of the population own their own vehicle. A solution to public mobility is the self-driving taxi. Said to be cheaper, greener and safer, in August, Nutonomy began testing a fleet of electric autonomous taxis, while Delphi Automotive says it will introduce six robot cars next summer.
Karl Iagnemma, Nutonomy’s chief executive, has been reported as saying: “The pilot is going to allow us to collect technical data, but equally importantly, it’s going to allow us to find out if people enjoy riding in driverless cars.”
Joshua Chan, deputy head of the Smart Nation programme, says: “Singapore’s compact size and single layer of governance certainly helps with the speed at which we can trial, upscale and roll out smart solutions nationwide. Hence, we can become a living laboratory for Smart City solutions to be tested, developed and prototyped.”
Singaporeans often joke that they live in a “fine city – you’re fined for littering, for smoking, for carrying a durian on the MRT”, but any gentle criticism of the government is tempered by a sense of national pride. Locals are eager adopters of new technology, evidenced by everything from governmental initiatives such as computer literacy across state schools (something that was introduced in the 1980s) to the hoards taking part in mass Pokemon Go walks through East Coast Park. “We also have one of the highest mobile penetration rates in the world,” Chan says.
Elissa Loi, deputy editor of tech title Stuff Singapore, says: “Many tech companies see Singapore as an influencer and make a lot of their products available here in what’s often the first wave of release. Given the tech culture and population density, it’s easy for tech trends to catch on.”
Once a valuable port for British colonisers, today Singapore still occupies a strategic position in Southeast Asia, a hub from which to tap into the burgeoning markets of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Exports, particularly in electronics, chemicals and services (Singapore is the regional hub for wealth management) provide the main source of revenue.
This year, Singapore retained its position as the second-freest economy in the world for the 22nd consecutive year. It is also very pro-business, as its World Bank ranking testifies – you can register a company online in only 15 minutes. Tax rates are low (14.2 per cent of GDP), and yet Singapore has the third highest per-capita GDP in the world in terms of purchasing power parity (US$84,821).
Jeffrey Paine, a start-up pioneer and leader of the Singapore Founder Institute (fi.co), says: “I think Smart Nation will generate local demand for products and services from start-up companies, but I also hope that the forward-thinking attitude of the nation will incentivise more businesses to operate in Singapore.” In 2005 there were 24,000 start-ups – by 2014, there were 55,000. Some 40 per cent of start-up acquisitions that take place in Southeast Asia happen in Singapore.
But while the city is empowering and facilitating resident companies, it is also keen to attract and host international business travellers who pass through for various meetings and events. In fact, its superb range of venues and incentive activities has helped to make Singapore a world leader in the meetings industry.
The exhibition centre at Marina Bay Sands is one of the largest venues here, but it’s the wealth of world-class options that keeps Singapore competing with the best. Last year, it was voted Asia’s top convention city by the International Congress and Convention Association for the 14th year in a row.
Much of this success comes from a strategy built on government partnerships with airlines, hotels and venues offering incentives to planners. One of these is the Singapore MICE Advantage programme, which works with Singapore Airlines and the convention bureau to offer financial support to large-scale events, discounted airfares and extra baggage allowances for delegates.
On top of this, the Business Events in Singapore scheme offers grants to gatherings that promote development within the industry, while In Singapore Incentives and Rewards (INSPIRE) tailors bucket-list experiences for groups, such as cocktails at the world-famous Raffles hotel, excursions to the city’s ethnic enclaves and feng shui tours of its most prominent buildings.
The strategy seems to be working – last year saw Singapore host five new large-scale events that drew more than 25,000 participants in total. The city-state’s strategic location in the heart of Asia, the extensive global network of its flag carrier, and its world-class airport hub at Changi are all crucial contributors to its success. It’s easy to fly in delegates from all over the world for multinational conferences. It’s also home to an impressive range of hotels to suit all budgets (see opposite page).
Groups appreciate the breadth of activities available here too, says Linda Low, strategic partnership and product marketing manager at DMC Pacific World. “Delegates like the diversity of the destination and its unique landscape,” she says. “Traditional festivals and local culture are very much alive, despite the city’s modern appearance. Singapore is geographically compact, and delegates can explore its landmarks during a short stay.”
New among these is the S$532 million (US$383 million) National Gallery Singapore, which reopened in November 2015. Housed in the former Supreme Court and City Hall, it has a range of venues for hire, from the 330 sqm Supreme Court Terrace, with its striking rotunda dome and filigree skylight, to the sleek 236 sqm Coleman Deck, boasting skyline views from the City Hall’s rooftop.
For more technical events, Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre unveiled new audiovisual equipment in June and is now able to present panoramic displays across a 105-metre projection screen. An additional 3D holographic projector is suspended 4.5 metres above ground, forming an eye-catching centrepiece to events.
Singapore Expo has also added advanced facilities in the form of the “wifimax” system introduced earlier this year. A first in Asia, it allows more than 15,000 devices to be connected at the same time.
When meetings wind down, the city’s inimitable dining scene comes to life. July marked the launch of Singapore’s first Michelin Guide, which bestowed stars on 29 establishments – two of those being street vendors. Street food is a major feature of local culture, and is where the full scale of the city’s ethnic diversity can be seen. A trip to no-frills Old Airport Road hawker centre or the Maxwell Food Centre should be on any itinerary, being home to rows of open-air stalls dishing out pan-Asian favourites such as Chinese white pepper crab, Indian roti and Malaysian laksa.
Bob Guy, managing director at Destination Asia, says that planners and delegates value Singapore’s blend of “modern city, state-of-the-art venues and restaurants, as well as the backdrop of British colonial history”. He adds: “Most planners propose a five- or six-night itinerary including local touring, award-winning cuisine and activities involving golf, sailing and adventure activities on Sentosa Island.”
Sentosa is Singapore’s one-stop shop for adventure activities, home to Universal Studios and numerous established resort brands. A visit to the Mega Zip Adventure Park, complete with 450-metre zip line, obstacle course and 15-metre free-fall “parajump”, offers fertile ground for teambuilding.
Later this year, Sentosa will welcome the city’s first bungee tower, courtesy of New Zealand-based operator AJ Hackett. The 50-metre-tall structure will also feature a giant swing, where, strapped into a harness, participants dangle from a “swing rack”, which reaches speeds of over 100 km/h. That’s one way to achieve a memorable meeting programme. For more information on holding events in Singapore, visit yoursingapore.com/mice
The hotel landscape has also been rapidly expanding, in order to accommodate increasing numbers of international visitors. Here are some recent openings to consider:
Hotel Jen Tanglin
In January, Shangri-La celebrated the reopening of the Traders Singapore as Hotel Jen, its contemporary spin-off brand. Situated close to the Orchard Road shopping district, its S$45 million (US$32 million) renovation has added king-size “floating beds” and Scandi-inspired furniture to its 565 rooms. hoteljen.com
Ibis styles Singapore on Macpherson
The opening of the midscale Ibis Styles Singapore on Macpherson in April added 298 keys to the city’s offering. Connected to a new shopping mall, the hotel also offers a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, gym and meeting room. accor.com
Oasia Hotel Downtown
Opened in April 2016, the 27-storey designer hotel is located in the heart of the central business district. The building has a unique silhouette, covered by a lush green façade that acts as a massive vertical garden. stayfareast.com
Le Meridien Sentosa Island
In June, Starwood’s Le Méridien brand made a return to Singapore, taking over the Movenpick Heritage Hotel Sentosa. With 191 contemporary guestrooms and a prime position opposite the Sentosa Express monorail, this historic building (a former military barracks) has never looked more enticing. lemeridiensingaporesentosa.com
Millennium Hotels’ M Social Singapore opened in June on Robertson Quay. Designed by Philippe Starck, the 293-room property has mismatched furniture, edgy artwork, and the Beast and Butterflies restaurant, already a hit. msocial.com.sg
Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong
This boutique brand from Intercontinental Hotels Group made its Singaporean debut in July. Located on East Coast Road, the 131-room property features kitsch details such as antique Singer sewing machine bases propping up the bathroom basins, and colourful tiling. ihg.com
Four Points by Sheraton Riverview
In a prime location overlooking Robertson Quay, the Four Points by Sheraton opened in August. It has 476 spacious rooms and suites offering bay window seats for admiring river or city views. starwoodhotels.com
Mercure Singapore Bugis
Accorhotels opened the 395-room heritage-inspired Mercure Singapore Bugis in the city’s cultural district in August. Local flavour is reflected in the design, from the shophouse façade to the Peranakan-inspired décor. All rooms come with a Handy smartphone. accor.com
Holiday Inn Express Singapore Katong
The new 451-room hotel became the third and largest Holiday Inn Express in Singapore when it opened in June. The hotel is a 15-minute drive from Changi Airport and in close proximity to Singapore Expo, Changi Business Park and Singapore Sports Hub. ihg.com
The Warehouse Hotel
Scheduled to open next month, this heritage property is the first boutique hotel from local hospitality company The Lo & Behold Group. Located on the banks of Robertson Quay in a converted 1895 “godown”, the 37-room hotel offers a unique slice of old Singaporean history for its pampered guests. thewarehousehotel.com
Anna Hart and Marisa Cannon