Falling in love with the East

Prof E. Bijoykumar Singh *

Singapore in 2007 :: Pix - Martin Haobam

A three and half hours Singapore airlines flight from Kolkata took me to Singapore whose civic infrastructure could be favourably compared with that of New York. The fare was like going to Delhi. But Singapore is different. Roads without potholes, wide lanes, well behaved passengers in buses and metros, polite taxi drivers, numerous very hygienic eateries, huge shopping malls, ever smiling attendants and believe it or not no policemen these are some characteristics of Singapore that really impressed me.

It is everything I would love to have. At one time I thought it was only in New York that we can have these. I had a foretaste of the system that made it a normal way of life when the paper to be submitted to the Immigration officer at Changi airport carried the legend" drug trafficking is punishable by death". It is carried out.

Law and order is taken so seriously that none dares to break it. Even policeman not on duty is an ordinary citizen. One policeman was jailed for one day and fined SG$1000 for flashing his I- card when not on duty. Taxi drivers have to be told of our destination. The fare starts from SG$3.5. Taxi number and name of the driver are boldly shown on a screen. It is very rare for a taxi driver to tell the passenger that he would be going in a different direction.

What about pickpockets in public places? Unthinkable. Yet there were frequent announcements warning citizens against unattended bags just like Delhi.

Cyclists would leave their bicycles at bus stands where there was no guard. In other words people attend to their duties convinced that their society would not tolerate anything else. The best part is that they look like us. Yet their social norm is very different from ours. They work hard and they respect the law. No one seems to be above the law.

How did we come to think so differently? Can we learn to think like them? The crowd in metros and shopping malls made me day dream. It could be a scene of Imakeithel. However that version of Imakeithel would be a very different Imakeithel. May be Imakeithel would have become a shopping mall!

The mall bug has already surfaced in Manipur and has been let loose disguised as development. Manipur in the 23rd century may look like today's Singapore which is very different from the vision of Dinesh Tongbram. Dinesh had a purpose and the Singapore-like future did not fit in. His vision was one of the possibilities.

The east is the land of possibilities. These dreams, when converted into reality, would make our lives very different. Imagining myself as Tong is not as difficult as imagining myself as Amir khan. The difference between Tong and Amir is that the former sells a possible dream.

Launching ourselves in the spin of such possible dreams will be as important as any incremental traditional input like labour and capital. Whether we like it or not, we have little space in mainland dreams. In many parts of India where our workers have settled down, a stereo type has set in. Most of us are security guards, cooks, waiters, etc, not many can be another Mary Kom or Dingku. We soon hit the ceiling.

Most of us are not even the middle class. We have come to regard the Dutta as the role model and do not dream to out perform them. We are content to be the paradox we are: wallowing in poverty in the midst of plenty. The incentive system has strangled entrepreneurship, the key ingredient for development. Our entrepreneurs have chosen the expressway to wealth by masquerading as the freedom fighters.

A short stint in any of the many underground groups is like an investment which will open all doors anywhere. The appreciation is for being another Ratan or another Kunjarani. The 24X7 hype on our performance in Sports and culture made us think as if these were the only possibilities. This way of thinking has come very gradually and seeped into our conscience.

This may have helped in bringing out our best in some fields. Unfortunately the need for a rethink calls for a quick shunting of this perspective. The east can facilitate and expedite this shunting. The impact of an image of a Dutta managing a successful enterprise in Delhi is very different from that of a Tong in Singapore. We really do not know what will happen when the rethink begins.

That is why I consider many of frequently asked questions inappropriate. It is more like predicting what a child can do, conveniently forgetting the truth that the child will grow up. One such question that has affectively made us feel small is what we can export? We are ourselves importing everything.

Can this land of load shedding ever dream of exporting power to Tamu? Our export sector did not grow because there was no adequate demand for our products. The disruption of the region's connectivity at the time of independence robbed us of our competitiveness and as a natural corollary we succumbed to cheaper imported items. We failed to create demand for our products in the mainland due the difference in culture.

However we are yet to factor in diaspora demand for our products which is very different from the 'once-in-a-lifetime' demand that we are used to. The insatiable demand for our handloom products in Mandalay may work wonders for our handloom industry. With appropriate policy many things, even the factor intensity of the industry, may undergo rapid changes.

Comparative advantage also comes from economies of scale. Factor endowments need not condemn us to an unchanging mix of comparative advantage. A radical change in composition and level of demand may enable us to attain a scale where substantive economies of scale can become a reality. The improvement in connectivity will also affect cost calculations.

In short our comparative advantage has become fragile and new opportunities may launch us in hitherto never thought of activities. One has to admit how difficult it is to predict when possibilities come calling.

* Prof E. Bijoykumar Singh wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao
The writer is at Economics Department, Manipur University
This article was posted on April 06, 2013.

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