Singapore: the pros and cons of basing your business there

Singapore has been in the spotlight for the past few months, for different reasons, among which are the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the recent shift of global wealth to its shores[1].

What makes Singapore the success story it clearly is, and what should we consider if we  have a growing interest in migrating to Singapore, either for business purposes or for residence?

First, some necessary background.

I write from the standpoint of personal knowledge. I have lived and worked in Singapore for approximately a decade. I am an English commercial lawyer. My professional focus has been the various emerging markets in the neighbourhood of Singapore, be it Indonesia, or Malaysia, Thailand, or Myanmar, Vietnam or the PRC.

So what makes Singapore a great base from which to do business, and what are its negatives?

Since the days of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first and clearly outstanding leader, Singapore has understood and promoted the value of education. It has a number of world-class educational entities, including schools such as the Raffles Institution, and universities like the NUS. Not surprisingly, at Oxford, or when training at the London Bar, some of the brightest students I had had the pleasure to meet, were from Singapore.

Secondly, Singapore tries reasonably hard to be a meritocracy (and that is not easy to notice when you are a small island in the middle of a ‘sea’ of nepotism and corrupt practices). Some years ago, a Singaporean colleague of mine at Dentons’ Singapore office, explained that the Singapore government recruits some of the brightest and most capable individuals from its own workforce. That is one clear reason for the incredible efficiency with which the different departments in Singapore function, whether this is the tax, or the immigration authorities, or government departments as diverse as the ministry of justice, or the ministry of transportation.

Thirdly, Singapore’s legal system and its laws closely follow the legal system and the laws of England (strictly speaking, England and Wales). As a consequence (and yes, I am a little biased, I admit) the workings of the Singapore legal system are by-and-large predictable, intelligent and dependable, and the laws themselves are well thought out, and functionally efficient. Again, a marked contrast with the legal systems and the laws of many of Singapore’s neighbours. In addition to this, the average (and probably also the above-average) Singaporean citizen is largely ‘compliant’ and therefore doing business in Singapore is also largely ‘efficient’ and business outcomes are predominantly predictable.

What most commentators write about, when they wish to extoll the virtues of the city state, is that it is very clean, almost crime-free, is politically stable, boasts marvellous medical facilities, and has a superb inland transportation system, whether this relates to the road system, or the Singapore MRT, or even the bus network in-country.

That is all absolutely true, but what the commentator frequently omits, or perhaps does not understand, are the underlying reasons why, on appearance, Singapore is all those things, and I trust that I have spelled out some of the key ‘reasons’ in this post.

But surely not all in Singapore is ‘gold’?

Of its different ‘negatives’, the most critical perhaps is its lack of creativity, which I suppose is a trade-off for greater efficiency and predictability. It is often remarked by critics of the country, that although most Singaporeans are very smart, they frequently find it hard to ‘think out of the box’. So be it. One can even see this sometimes in my own profession: the lawyer one is working with or across, may be supremely bright, and well read, but they lack the kind of creativity which many businesses value (or really should value) in their legal advisors.    

Nowadays, one of the clear ‘negatives’ there, is that it is grossly overcrowded, and sometimes under-resourced. That it is very expensive, and somewhat elitist in outlook.

There is much more that can be said, both on the positive as well as on the negative sides, but what I have given the reader here is a ‘snapshot’ which I hope has gone some way towards explaining the reasons why Singapore is a great place to base one’s business, and gives one or two reasons why it may not be ideal.  

[1] That said, I note that a handful of years ago Mr Dyson, the prominent British businessman, decided to shift certain business interests to Singapore, only to withdraw them again more recently! One should ask oneself why that change of heart.

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