Anthony Faiola, SingaporeMarch 9, 2009
THIS shimmering city-state was the house globalisation built. When trade boomed, Singapore's port, at the crossroads of East and West, became a hub for freighters and supertankers. Nearly everything manufactured here is made for export. One out of every three workers is a foreigner.
But Singapore is now a window into the reversal of the forces that brought unprecedented global mobility to goods, services, investment and labour. With world trade plummeting for the first time since 1982, the port has become a maritime parking lot in recent weeks, with rows of idle freighters from Asia, Europe, the US, South America, Africa and the Middle East stretching for kilometres along the coast. "We're running out of space to park them," said Ron Widdows, chief executive of Singapore-based NOL, one of the world's largest container lines. Thousands of foreign workers, including London School of Economics graduates with six-digit salaries and desperately poor Bangladeshi factory workers, are streaming home as the economy suffers the worst recession in South-East Asia. Singapore is an epicentre of what analysts call a new flow of reverse migration away from hard-hit economies, including Dubai and Britain, that were once beacons for foreign labour.
Economists from Credit Suisse predict an exodus of 200,000 foreigners — or one in every 15 workers here — by the end of 2010.
Singapore's exports collapsed by a stunning 35 per cent in January, mirroring much of the rest of Asia. The export boom here was tied to credit-fuelled buying sprees in the US that stopped abruptly and may take years to return, if ever.
Adding to growing fears of a years-long depression for exports is a rising tide of trade protectionism in countries including neighbouring Indonesia.
The scene in this port city illustrates the ebbing of a golden age of trade, innovation, wealth accumulation and poverty reduction through globalisation.
In four months, port traffic has fallen by double digits not only in Norfolk, Long Beach and Savanna, but in Pusan, Hong Kong and Bremerhaven.
Air hubs from London to Singapore that saw traffic soar as the world became more linked through business, investment and trade are seeing a sharp reversal of fortune. In January, global airline passenger traffic fell 5.6 per cent; air cargo nose-dived 23.2 per cent.
As exports crash worldwide, factories from China to Eastern Europe are closing. The World Bank estimates the crisis will trap at least 53 million more people in the developing world in poverty this year. Last week alone, a billion dollars fled emerging markets — the largest weekly loss since October, according to Merrill Lynch.
Some of the hardest hit are migrants and foreign contract workers.
Malaysia is expelling 100,000 Indonesians as part of a new policy to put Malaysian workers first as the recession sparks job losses.
In Britain, strikes broke out in protest at the hiring of foreigners at one of the country's largest refineries even as thousands of Eastern European immigrants headed home because they lacked work.
Investors are fleeing South Korea so fast that its short-term debt may surpass dwindling reserves by the end of this year. WASHINGTON POST