The smell of money

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When it comes to smelling, chasing and pocketing money, Singapore has a way of punching above its weight. Ideology and principles take a back seat, human rights violations are not a bother and chaotic politics are not an issue. It is the honey pot at the end of the rainbow that matters.

Singapore’s business-minded government, its diplomatic corps well groomed in finding that next goldmine and the seamless way its politics mixes with business are all plus factors.

The newest honey pot is up in the northern tip of the world — in the Arctic Ocean — where the melting ice is opening up mouth-watering opportunities to exploit abundant supplies of oil, gas and minerals.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 22 per cent of the world’s oil and natural gas could be hidden beneath the Arctic Ocean. There are also large gold, iron and zinc deposits in the region, not to mention the supplies of fish that can be found in the area.

Despite its small size, Singapore has just been accepted as an observer-member of the Arctic Council, an important toehold for a country that has been in perennial pursuit of new economic activity after the traditional sources – the U.S., Europe and, to a lesser extent, China – have started to dry up.

In addition to Singapore, the other nations granted observer status at the Arctic Council are India, Italy, Japan and South Korea.

Singapore’s interest in the area surfaced seven years ago when one of its government-owned companies, Keppel Corporation, signed a S$135 million deal to build a floating storage and offloading system for a leading Russian oil company.

A Keppel statement at that time said: “The system is designed for operations in cold temperatures of up to minus 20 degrees Celsius in ice thickness of 60 cm.”†

Outside of deals like this, Singapore’s long-term interest is in making sure that it is not left out of the action if the Northern Sea Route becomes viable. Once just a wish, the route is now seen as a viable option to the traditional passageways of the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and Mediterranean, especially during the longer summer months brought about by the effects of climate change.

More ships are already beginning to use the Northern Sea Route. Three years ago, only four ships carrying 111,000 tons of cargo made the northern journey; by last year, the number of ships had jumped to 46, carrying 1.26 million tons.

“As a small low-lying island state that relies on sea-borne trade, Singapore can be greatly influenced by what happens in the Arctic region,” Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan said at the meeting where the country was accepted as an observer member late last year.

Another source of rich picking on the money trail is the vast riches of the South Asian diaspora, whose middle class is hitting one billion.

Last year, Singapore rolled out the red carpet to this group by holding its second convention on the South Asian diaspora. When the first conference was held in Singapore in 2011, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai said, “We hope that the conference will help the diaspora look at Singapore as a convenient venue where they can meet, interact and use as a base for future activities.”

“The conference would project Singapore as a modern city, Asian in its outlook, where the South Asian diaspora can fit in comfortably,” he added.

Government leaders and agencies are all behind this effort, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opening the 2011 conference and his deputy, Teo Chee Hean, doing the honours at this year’s event.

Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, International Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Tourism Board, Economic Development Board and the Monetary Authority of Singapore have all been roped in to make the conference a success.

As Singapore faces domestic pressures from its public to open up space at home, its outreach into faraway lands and its ability to bring together people with business potential show no lack of vigour.