Sitting in the calm of Singapore’s Changi Airport (carpets, space, natural light, armchairs), waiting for a flight to HK, the nearby Harrods concession is quite. So is Harry’s Bar, and the RELAY book store. A couple of Australians doze in armchairs. Outside a Jetstar plane backs away from its gate. An Indian boy stands watching and practising hip hop moves.
Singapore is agog at what is going on in the Eurozone. The Straits Times has run back-to-back editorials on the likelihood of a Greek referendum. At the G20 in Cannes, which Singapore has been invited to attend for the second time, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned that the European situation is ‘serious and volatile’ and on a bigger scale than the 2008 financial meltdown in the United States.
The news channels have been pumping out coverage of Cannes, and the latest (worrying) numbers from Korea and China. On CNBC’s Squawk Box the market analysts babble and shout at one another about bearish sentiments on the HKEX, KRX, SSE and BSE. Snow-bound but safely on the Eastern Seaboard, American anchors nurse mugs of coffee and shake their heads at the goings-on over there in Athens. ‘The Greek cabinet is huge and every single one of its members is just looking out for themselves’ explains a brunette with arched eyebrows, and Andrew Ross Sorkin cracks a joke, which is I guess what he is paid to do. In contrast, BBC World seems oddly unperturbed, reporting David Beckham’s Olympic football ambitions and the imprisonment of corrupt Pakistani cricketers. When at last we get to Cannes the BBC’s analysis is lite. ‘It has started to rain heavily’ reveals the reporter, her back to the marina, ‘which seems appropriate’.
Asia is beginning to lose patience with the west, and the political blundering of its democracies. You can feel it. Seen from Singapore this new round of the crisis feels both absurd extremely serious; recession II is blowing east and there is mounting evidence that Asian economies are slowing. Hard won programmes for growth and development are in danger, and as in Athens this will have a human cost. Asia’s growth is not just about new shiny new malls and a shift of global power, it is also about staying ahead of the high expectations of the region’s burgeoning cohorts of young men and women. Policy-makers fear the political consequences of a slow-down China and India could make the tear-gas riots in Athens look like student protests.
‘The eurozone’s fucked’ a banker told me as we drove through the city in his sports car. ‘The days of flying over big shot Americans to tell us what to do next is so over’ said another expatriate over lunch ‘we just don’t care what they think any more’. Global recovery has been pushed back two to three years’ predicted an Insead grandee over dinner at the China Club, the luxurious and heavily lacquered David Tang franchise on Capital Tower 52nd floor. Our private dining room looked down over the Straits, where shipping was moored for the night. Each ship shone twin mooring lights and another at the bow; from this height it looked like someone had launched scores of lanterns. I was impressed.
But the next day, touring Singapore’s Economic Development Board, a government agency which steers this agile and ambitious city-state, my host explained that plenty of ships were – counter-intuitively – a bad sign. ‘They should be out at sea’ he explained, as we looked out over the Straits towards the Indonesian archipelago, now visible on a grey afternoon. ‘If they are sitting here it’s because people aren’t spending enough money in Europe and the US. During the financial crisis in 2008 these Straits were jam-packed with empty container ships’. I asked him about the rugby pitches and a small stadium below us – rare open land running close to the shore. ‘That’s the oldest green space in the city. It’s where the British surrendered to the Japanese.’
The inability of Europe’s politicians to prevent two world wars breaking out in the 20th century spread conflict and impoverishment to Asia, a region Europe had for centuries colonised and traded with on its own terms. At the beginning of the 21st, the political failure of Europe’s political class once again threatens the rest of the world. Those who held European Union as a gravity-defying panacea to war and strife, and saw in the pell mell integration steered recklessly by Europe’s elites an improving model for the world, may now choose their words, and their enthusiasms, more carefully.
‘You must be pleased England does not have the euro’ a local businessman asked me yesterday. “Yes, but …” I replied. I didn’t need to say anything more. The Eurozone crisis meant both our businesses were poorer and more vulnerable, and we knew it. He cracked a joke about the Greek referendum, and I found myself defending Prime Minister Papandreou. Or rather, not Papandreou but the principle of referenda. The Eurozone was poisoned, I tried to explain, because the project had been hatched by an elite in a self-imposed hurry. The European project was a product of committees and private agreements, it wasn’t man-made. It wasn’t robust. It was time voters re-claimed the European project.
David Cameron and George Osborne have used the analogy of a burning building to describe the crisis as seen from London. They mean to take credit for the fact that the UK is not on fire but simultaneously point out the threat is nearby, thus licensing their participation in the discussion about how the flames are extinguished. Osborne has urged the Eurozone to follow the ‘remorseless logic’ of monetary union and integrate their economic and fiscal activities. He and Cameron are less prescriptive about what the UK should do once the burning building has been made safe. Conservative back-benchers picked the wrong moment to call for a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU, but a vote is coming and we must all start thinking about what we want from it. The politicians insisted they should drive the EU, and they have crashed. Perhaps it’s time the citizens – in Greece and the UK – did some back-seat driving.