Singapore and Dubai: Benchmarks for global smart cities

31 Dec 2014

Both were originally simple trading settlements, with Dubai rising near its shallow creek and Singapore being founded near the mouth of its main river


·         By Umej Bhatia | Special to Gulf News

·         Published: 16:16 December 29, 2014




When you benchmark, you compare your processes to the best out there. You also choose a development model which resonates with your own.


At first glance, Singapore and Dubai would appear to be very different propositions. First, Singapore is a sovereign, island city-state in South-East Asia while Dubai is a city-emirate in the Middle East, part of the larger federation of the UAE. Second, physically Singapore is almost six times smaller but has more than twice Dubai’s population. Third, Singapore is situated in the leafy and humid tropics, and experiences 15 times more rainfall than comparatively arid Dubai, which has blossomed into a city from desert sand. More than a 10 degree variation in record high and low temperature exists between Singapore and Dubai, with four seasons in Dubai while Singapore’s default weather reading is “scattered showers”!


Geographically, socially and culturally, Dubai and Singapore would also appear on the surface to inhabit different worlds. As the Arabic proverb goes: “I say East and you say West”.


However, a closer look would bring into focus the many similarities shared by these two dynamic and cosmopolitan maritime and aviation hubs of Asia and the Middle East. Taken together, these make Dubai and Singapore fascinating models for studies of comparison, contrast and benchmarking. Historically, both Singapore and Dubai emerged from humble beginnings near internal waterways. Both were originally simple trading settlements, with Dubai rising near its shallow creek, and Singapore founded near the mouth of its main river. Singapore’s founding ideas were simple — to protect property, to enforce contracts and to open its doors for the movement of goods and of people.


A few simple organising ideas and immediately, money and people and goods and services flowed in and the Singapore grew very rapidly. From what has been called an “improbable nation” with little chance of survival at birth, Singapore bloomed into Asia’s first global city.


To develop the Middle East’s first global city, Dubai deepened its creek and just like Singapore flourished on the backbone of free trade, entrepot functions and a bustling port. The fundamental ethos of “build it and they will come” and “what is good for business is good for Dubai” distinguished the emirate from its resource-rich neighbours early on. Today both Singapore and Dubai in the UAE are thriving hubs and havens of security, offering quality of life and lives of quality to many amidst regions of chronic instability. Attracting global trade and investment flows, Singapore and the emirates of the UAE defy the view that size is destiny. With remarkable leadership, each has coped with the realities of geographical destiny while leveraging on their strategic location and striving to deliver security and stability for their region. In an era where key cities serve mega-regions and connect a shrinking world of “info-states”, Singapore and the UAE’s two largest emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have also become crucial nodes in the global grid of knowledge-based economic networks.


Indeed, Singapore and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi and Dubai mirror each other in their respective regions, with Singapore a key global city in East and South East Asia and the UAE serving a similar role in West Asia, Central Asia and beyond.


Development visions


At the crossroads of globalisation and as regional gateways, Singapore and the UAE have great potential to serve as trans-regional hub partners. This was the theme of the inaugural Singapore-UAE Joint Committee meeting hosted by Singapore in November 2014 and co-chaired by the Foreign Ministers of Singapore and the UAE. The East-West Asian nexus of Singapore, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the UAE may even be dubbed the “Abu Dubai-pore Connect”, a model based on robust political leadership, compelling development visions, social harmony, vibrancy and superb connectivity.


It is this connectivity in particular that offers great potential for the “Abu Dubai-pore Connect” to link up with like-minded cities in defining the way forward as global smart cities.


Smartphone penetration in Singapore is 85 per cent and mobile phone penetration is 150 per cent while smartphone penetration in the UAE is 78 per cent and mobile phone penetration is more than 200 per cent.


Based on these ready-made platforms, if we work together to develop solutions relevant to smart cities, these can be exported elsewhere to offer smart benchmarking for cities globally. Some of these ideas were explored during the visit of Singapore’s Information and Communications Minister to Dubai earlier this month.


In particular, Dubai Expo 2020 with its appropriate theme of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” offers an exciting opportunity to test-bed new technologies and embed them into solutions for smart cities worldwide.


As benchmark places, we also keep pace with one another, with a dose of healthy competition while cooperating and collaborating, and spurring a virtuous cycle of growth and development. Together we can create the future as successful paradigms of urban renewal, evolution and success, remembering our shared histories and anticipating our future trajectories.As Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015 and the UAE looks forward to its own 50th year celebrations in 2021, there is much we can achieve together and the future looks bright indeed.


Umej Bhatia is Singapore’s Ambassador to the UAE. He has also served for two terms on the Board of Directors of Singapore’s Infocomms Development Authority (International).


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