Barking enough to join the big boys

November 19, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Leo Lewis
Times Online


Singapore’s newspaper stories about dogs must have puzzled world leaders

For Singapore, always desperate for recognition, it was its biggest speaking part in the global drama: the “little red dot” was still small but the leaders descending on it last weekend were the biggest in the world. President Obama, President Hu and 19 other heads of state hit town for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum. Issues up for debate included averting financial and environmental apocalypse.

As the summit ended Singapore’s status as a global player was assured. “Designer pooches are the nation’s top dogs,” barked a two-page spread in the local press, capping three consecutive days of prominent dog stories during the global summit.

This article was fascinating for anyone interested in obtaining the correct licence for a Labradoodle, but a bit embarrassing, I suspect, for a country bursting to be taken as a serious global financial centre. In real global financial centres, three-legged schnauzers are often edged out of the paper by trillion-dollar debt crises and megamergers.

But Singapore has already established one of the firmest cornerstones of a great financial centre: that slight estrangement from sanity that allows everyone to spin an invisible ball of wool and calculate the value of an argyle jumper that won’t be knitted until 2018.

Lottery-related superstitions are always a good place to look for signs of madness. In Singapore death in especially gory, headline-grabbing circumstances creates an aura of good luck, according to local belief.

All you have to do is note down the licence plates of the hearse and cars bearing mourners at the funeral, enter them on your lottery card and wait for the winnings to pour in. It is marginally saner than trading bonds, a bond trader tells me, but more than enough to qualify Singapore as a global financial centre.

Bet the house

Discussing the Apec meeting with a brainy WWF environmentalist, I was struck by his easy hop between despair and buoyancy. For the first half of his latte, Christian painted a gloomy picture of next month’s climate change summit in Copenhagen.

There are too many lawyers involved in what used to be the honest business of saving the world. But with a half shot of caffeine inside him, his mood changed. All is not lost. China, India, Brazil were striding ahead with projects that could shame the rest of the world.

I went directly from coffee with Christian to meet a specialist in “green” investments. This was a more cut-and-dried discussion. The smart money, it seems, is not betting on saving the world with solar panels and wind farms, but wagers that it will go to hell. Two investments spring to mind, he said: a Dutch company that makes the sort of dam that New York and London will need if they want to remain above water, and any property now ten blocks back from a beachfront. Give it a few years and you’ve got a yacht floating on what used to be your front drive.

Rooms with a view

If the financial centres of Singapore, London and New York are slightly estranged from sanity, Hong Kong has endured a complete and messy divorce from its marbles. I discovered this after an hour with one of its leading property analysts: a lady of ice-cold rationale and a silk suit of weaponised business elegance.

Backed by acres of charts and research, she revealed a government conspiracy to reduce property supply artificially. Might this problem be eased if people in Hong Kong were less superstitious, I asked.

“The ghost houses?” she said. “Who could live in them with all those terrible feelings? Banks won’t even give you a mortgage if you try to buy a place where someone committed suicide. Often, they won’t give you a mortgage if you’re trying to buy a place with a view of an apartment where someone was murdered.”

She gathers herself, realising that I am now certain that Hong Kongers are round the twist.

“It’s OK, though, the landlords rent the haunted houses to foreigners.”

Wrestling with protocol

As the curtain fell on the Apec meeting, leaders posed for the obligatory summit shot with everyone in dire “local” clothes. Singapore had run up special mandarin smocks that made the most powerful men in the world look like towel-bearers at a downmarket spa. As the great show rumbled out of town, speeches looked forward to next year’s jamboree in Tokyo. Somewhere, in the protocol department of the Japanese Cabinet office, preparations are already taking place.

Ministry drone #1: “Singapore has set the bar high and we only have a year to work out how to make Obama and Hu look even more ridiculous. The Americans have done cowboy hats and someone else did ponchos. I hope you understand the huge responsibility. It has to be traditional, Japanese and fit badly. Any ideas?”

Ministry drone #2: “Sumo outfit?”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/leo_lewis/article6920756.ece