Monday, January 4, 2016

World's best and Number One in this-and-that? It's hard work staying there.

As airliners that can fly a longer distance bypass Singapore and as container ships that can carry more cargo do the same, the city-state's relevance to the world economy ebbs.

The music won't stop all of a sudden. But the signs are there:

  • Business intelligence reports flag out that Singapore will not reclaim its crown as the world's busiest port from Shanghai for the foreseeable future. The Chinese port won that title in 2010. This involves more than bragging rights. A port needs a critical mass of small feeder vessels, air cargo freighters, mega container ships and efficient turnaround to thrive. Rival ports with dreams of becoming the second busiest already know that and have their sights set on Singapore.
  • An Arab state has apparently been successful in luring more than a handful of Singapore's air traffic controllers (ATC) to the Middle East. An upsized ATC staff is usually a lead indicator for growing airport capacity - which is bad news if airlines that flock to a new air hub displace Changi Airport's business model. Our limited talent pool and lead-time needed to train new ATC staffers amplify the loss. What good is a new runway and new Terminal 5 unless our airport is adequately staffed with experienced personnel to lead Changi into the new decade and beyond?

And did anyone mention the possibility of new sea routes through the Arctic Circle that shorten the passage between continents?

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that past successes at future-proofing our rice bowl translate to future success.

Nothing is guaranteed.

Some travellers to Changi Airport may have been flummoxed recently when made to deplane by climbing down stairs in the middle of the airport apron. These passengers are then bussed to the airport terminal. It's a blast from the past at a Singapore airport last seen during the heyday of Paya Lebar Airport in the 1970s.

You could be charitable and call it a happy problem since the shortage of aerobridges during peak periods proves Changi has no shortage of air traffic.

Or you could be a realist and ask why our world famous ability to design and build for the future did not materialise during instances of lapsed capacity in air transport.

Look around our neighbourhood. The city that lent her name to the Malacca Strait many centuries ago when it was the region's go-to port is a shadow of her former self. Lost her crown (and sultan) as a leading seaport, never to regain her pre-eminence.

Look at Air Hitam. Once a popular stopover for the road trip up and down the Federation, bustling with vegetable sellers and sellers of sweet limes and assorted snacks, the Aw Pottery en route another popular rest stop. And this was during the time when Singapore dollar and Malaysian Ringgit were on par...

Where is Air Hitam now? Why, it's where it's always been off a trunk road that used to be much busier. But today's youngsters who have only known the North-South Highway as the way to Kuala Lumpur would have to resort to Google as many of them would not have heard of it.

Malacca and Air Hitam both suffered the same fate once their relevance to trade routes and commerce left them literally by the wayside.

If we are not careful and lapse into complacency, the world will pass us by.

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