Will Port City be next Singapore?

2016-12-29 07:33:05


By Michael Soris
There are many Christmas trees in the malls down Orchard Road in Singapore. In fact, when one takes the ride from Changi Airport into the city these days, the tourism promotion machinery begins with the taxi drivers promoting the Christmas decorations of this famous shopping district. They are not far wrong, as the decorations certainly live up to the promise and there is no escaping bumping into someone from Colombo every so often, as many have taken flight to enjoy the consumer commercialism that Singapore excels at offering.

Yes, Christmas by far and large is about commercialism; it’s about festivity and to a very small extent it is also about being spiritual and religious. Christians in a way cannot help it if the whole world wants to grab and own this festival. In fact, if one goes deeper into the Bible, as some theologians might argue, the Christmas tree is actually forbidden in any form of Christian worship, as it is connected to what the Israelites believed to be pagan. Pagan, according to Christian belief, is connected to the word carnal, meaning ‘of the flesh’. In the modern day, we could connect this to commercialism.  

Therefore, looking at the tallest Christmas tree in Colombo, which came to a sudden stop due to protests by the Christian clergy, from a carnal perspective it seems like they were interfering in something that is not entirely their business. The tree was the Ports Ministry piggybacking on the festival to create an attraction that would bring Sri Lanka or to be more specific Colombo, to the notice of the entire world, as a kind of forerunner to the planned development work that needs all the attention it can get in order to succeed.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Colombo is on the brink of becoming a new city. In approximately two years from now, the foundation stone for the first high rise would be laid on the Port City land. A year from then, the entire flat top of the reclaimed land would be complete, with well-laid-out parks, marina and beaches and we would be needing buyers and investors to make the new city a successful enterprise. 

Whilst the entire responsibility of marketing and developing the Port City lies in the hands of the project company as well as the government (on their land component), making Sri Lanka an attractive destination is the exclusive job of the government. Amongst the detractors of this project, there are those who argue that there was no necessity to reclaim land from the sea, as enough space was available on the existing land for development. However, what is not understood by the parochial mind is that cities need to be master planned and reviewed constantly, in order to be successful.  
The metabolic rate of a city is what makes it vibrant. Being an ocean front well master-planned city is the carrot to investors – a first of its kind in the whole of South Asia, known for its overcrowded and polluted cities. So, any other land of this size (though none exists close to Colombo to create a master-planned city), will take away a huge advantage of being oceanfront, where the world over land has sold at a premium.

In the case of Colombo, many say that currently the best location for office space is the World Trade Centre – but that building is 21 years old. In today’s business environment, the way people work is evolving rapidly. For example, the way technology is wired and connected and brought right to one’s desktop is changing as we speak, with new innovation competing against each other at an almost alarming pace. The places where people live, work and go for their recreation are changing in the blink of an eye. Given that, the best way to get our development kick started and fast is not to work on an old model like the dated city of Colombo but instead to build a 
new one.


Singapore model 
Looking at the Singapore model, there are some areas where old buildings are demolished to be replaced with new ones or the old façade is protected whilst a high rise comes up behind it. However, despite the lights and fairyland feel to it, the Orchard Road is looking a bit worn around the edges. In fact, even the much-hyped Universal Studios is looking somewhat tired and old as most of the attractions have not changed in the last three years. The service is slightly sloppy and as a result, the money-making mechanism within the park feels like a bit of a 
rip off.  

Is the Singapore formula going south? Some may argue that one couldn’t generalize with a few examples but as a taxi driver let slip when driving through the Sentosa Island casino car park, which was empty (a park that could literally hold thousands of vehicles), it was a sign of the current state of the 
Singapore economy.

Almost in corroboration, the front page of The Straits Times carries a headline story, ‘Residents taking longer to find jobs’, which says, “More jobless residents are taking longer to find work, Manpower Ministry figures released yesterday show. The proportion of residents in the labour force without work for at least 25 weeks rose to 0.8 percent in September, from 0.6 percent in the same month last year. This long-term unemployment rate is the highest for September since the 2009 global financial crisis. Job seekers outnumbered openings, with 91 openings for every 100 jobless people as of September. Layoffs dipped in the third quarter against the previous quarter but for the first nine months of the year reached 13,730 – a seven-year high.”

In another article, ‘Days of rising dividend payouts maybe numbered’, market watchers have told The Straits Times that they did not expect dividend payouts this year to be any better than 2015, as the economic situation was tight of late. “A quick look at the 30 stocks on the Straits Times Index (STI) supports their view. Only seven have paid out more dividends in this calendar year compared with 2015, Bloomberg data shows…,” says the article. It’s probably not a case of the Singapore economy tottering but it would be interesting to watch this space to see how they get out of this seemingly temporary impediment.  

But as for us, do we want to replicate the Singapore model in Colombo or even within the Colombo Port City? The answer to that would be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes, there are some aspects such as the discipline they maintain in running the city. Having said that, Sri Lanka is a much more vibrant country where democracy operates to its fullest in comparison with Singapore.  For example, the media and civil society are allowed much more freedom. 

Apart from that, unlike Singapore, which gets almost everything from abroad including some of their water, we have natural resources. It is in this light therefore, that we need to look at the Megapolis and Port City, which would be the catalysts for the Western Province development. So, ‘no’, we don’t want to replicate everything as there is much that is synthetic in Singapore, but at the same time, what they have done with their limited resources and the way they have done it would be something for us to look at.

The government’s positioning of the Port City as a financial/residential/shopping/recreation/entertainment city is in a sense a case of building a little Singapore on the edge of Colombo. It is an experimental city, which has international backers. But we need to stand tall and strong in this endeavour. Today, we may have the tallest Christmas tree to attract people to Sri Lanka, as a short-term gimmick and distraction, but in two years’ time, we will be building the tallest buildings in our part of the world as well as owning a new city.  
When that time comes, our competition will not only be limited to South Asia but the world at large.

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