Three ways to take the stress out of international summer travel

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

In the summer of 1972, the earliest year for which Statistics Canada keeps numbers, 282,210 Canadians returned from trips to foreign countries other than the United States. It took another 16 years before that number finally cracked the 500,000 mark in the summer of 1988, and 17 more years before the one-million mark was passed in the summer of 2005.

If the people who worked in the airports in that busy summer of 2005 thought it was a hectic couple of months, they hadn’t seen anything yet. During July and August 2014, more than 1.7 million Canadians returned from foreign countries other than the U.S. — a 70 percent traffic increase in just nine years.

If the 2000-2014 trend were to continue, by the end of the decade an additional 300,000 Canadians will be coming home from long-haul foreign destinations every July and August, boosting total returnee traffic during those two peak months past the 2 million mark.

That might turn out to be good for Winnipeg’s long efforts to land more long-haul flights. Not only is demand for international travel continuing to rise, but the additional crowding at Canada’s traditional ports of entry and the upcoming launch of new versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families — which will be able to fly nonstop for the first time from Winnipeg to the British Isles, bits of northwestern Europe or Hawai’i  — could make new seasonal services economically viable.

Yet in the meantime, this soaring demand creates a more pressing concern for Canadians this summer: how to keep one’s sanity in airports and on airplanes that are more tightly packed with people than ever.

1. Mind who you fly with. Even though the days are long gone when airlines advertised that they were so much fun to fly with you might not want to leave the aircraft, or showed supposed airline employees singing and dancing about what great service they offer (yes, that’s Suzanne Somers, pre-Three’s Company), there are still some airlines that have better reputations than others. Skytrax annually assesses the world’s airlines on quality of customer service, assigning one star to North Korea’s Air Koryo, the ultimate bottom-feeder, and five stars to the world’s best airlines, all of which are based in Asia or the oil-rich Middle East.

If you’re going to Asia, try flying Cathay Pacific or Japan’s ANA, two of the five-star airlines serving Canada. Air Canada is a safe enough bet as one of only four four-star North American airlines (the others being Porter, JetBlue and Virgin America). Other four-star airlines that partner with either Air Canada or WestJet include China Southern, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.

2. Mind where you sit. A passably comfortable seat for someone of average height and waistline should be at least 17.5 inches wide, and offer a seat pitch of at least 31 inches, that being the distance from the back of your seat to the one in front of you. But more tightly packed seats previously found on short-haul feeder flights, 17 inches wide at a 30-inch pitch, have been making their way on to long-haul flights as airlines try to pack more passengers into each aircraft. Air Canada Rouge and Austrian Airlines are the worst offenders; though even the regular Air Canada has taken heat for outfitting some of its Boeing 777-300s with 458 seats, compared to just 299 seats on British Airways’ 777-300s.

Before booking, look for the aircraft’s seat pitch and width information on the airline’s web site or on SeatGuru.com. If the seat pitch is less than 31 inches, or the width is less than 17.5 inches, expect to feel squished.

3. Treat schedules as being somewhat like a politician’s promises. The typical flight, believe it or not, arrives at its destination almost exactly on time, or at least within five minutes of the scheduled time — and it’s the typical, or median, travel time that airlines normally use in setting their schedules to maximize aircraft and staff productivity.

While it’s in the airlines’ best interests to base their schedules on median travel times, it’s not in your interest as a traveler to do so, as this could force you to run for your connecting flight or wait in line to be rebooked if that flight leaves without you.

Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been doing a fairly good job of keeping to schedule recently, but it’s still in your best interest to allow enough time in your schedule to handle a 30-minute delay (which will give you about 90 percent certainty) or a 45-minute delay if a missed connection would be more than just an inconvenience (which boosts the certainty level to about 95 percent on most airlines).

Delta and United, the two other big airlines serving Winnipeg, have been suffering some long delays on their worst 10 and five percent of flights recently. If flying Delta, a 30-minute delay allowance will still give you about 90 percent confidence of making a connection; but leave room for a delay of up to 70 minutes if making a connecting flight is absolutely critical.

United Airlines, the least-reliable major airline serving Winnipeg, should be given an even wider margin of error on its schedules. Based on its recent performance, allow for a 70-minute delay if you want 90 percent certainty of making a connecting flight; and for a 90-minute delay if you need 95 percent certainty.

Also beware of United’s tendency to sell unusually short connecting times between incoming international flights at its Chicago hub and onward flights to Canada, some connections being as short as 80 minutes. Your odds of making these connections are poor. All passengers arriving in the U.S., including those immediately continuing on to Canada, must go through full U.S. customs and immigration screening, which has been reported to take two to three hours on a busy day in Chicago due to U.S. government cost-cutting. After clearing U.S. border controls, you will need to re-check your bags, transfer from United’s international Terminal 5 to their domestic-and-Canada Terminal 2, go through security and make your way to the gate, which could easily add another hour or more. (And after all that fun, you’ll need to do the whole border clearance thing again two hours later here on return to Canada!)

Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub is said to work somewhat better; but even then a minimum connection time of three hours is recommended, not including delay allowances, if you arrive from outside of North America and connect onward to Canada.

If arriving in Canada from abroad at Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, budget at least 90 minutes for immigration, baggage delivery, customs, baggage re-check, security screening and boarding when coming back into the country, on top of the 30-to-45 minute delay buffers suggested above.

The worst economy since World War II? Well, no…

An ad that has been recently airing on Canadian radio stations and paid for by Unifor, a major private-sector union, claims that Canada’s economy has done worse under the current federal government than under any other federal government since World War II. This is a rather bold claim to make. But is it true?

One rough measure that economists use to measure a society’s economic distress is the Misery Index, which is rather simply the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It attracts its share of criticism for giving inflation too much weight and unemployment too little weight: fair enough.

Yet even if one accepts that the weighting could use a little fine-tuning, it appears that recent years have been far from the worst since World War II. That dubious honour goes to a decade-long bout of economic ill health from about 1976 to 1985 (at its worst around 1982) when either high inflation was eating away at people’s savings, or unemployment was wreaking havoc with peoples’ cash flow.

A second difficult period came in the early ’90s, when the misery index briefly spiked and unemployment was persistently greater than 10 percent for a two-and-a-half year period from late 1991 to mid-1994.

Unemployment rates, inflation and the "misery index", Canada, 1976-2014. (Click to enlarge.)

Unemployment rates, inflation and the “misery index”, Canada, 1976-2014. Source: Statistics Canada Consumer Price Index and Labour Force Survey data on CANSIM. (Click to enlarge.)

 

Recent times, by comparison, have been not so bad. Even during the 2008-09 global economic crisis, unemployment rates — which suddenly rose here, as in other countries — were no worse than they were during the mid-to-late ’80s economic boom, and they have been gradually declining since then. Inflation rates have also remained low, much unlike the 1976-82 period when they were trending steeply upward. The only way these could be described as being the worst economic times since World War II is by pretending the tough times of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s never happened.

The case against knighthoods

Those who know even a little bit about Canadian history will know that the country’s first prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald. “Sir”, of course, wasn’t his first name: the man who might otherwise have simply been known as plain old John Macdonald was made a knight of the British crown upon taking office on July 1, 1867.

The tradition of knighting prime ministers, and other Canadian dignitaries, continued for half a century. Seven of the country’s first eight prime ministers would be bestowed with the “Sir” honorific, the exception being Alexander Mackenzie, who rejected the offer of a knighthood on three occasions in a show of his egalitarian ideals.

The knighthoods largely came to an end in 1919, when the House of Commons adopted the Nickle Resolution, limiting the awarding of knighthoods and similar titles in Canada. This occurred under the government of Sir Robert Borden, who accepted a knighthood of his own but never cared much for it, and thus left instructions that his tombstone simply identify him as “Robert Laird Borden”, minus the “Sir” part.

So, aside from a brief policy reversal under Richard Bennett’s 1930-35 government, that was that for nearly a century. Even John Diefenbaker, a staunch Anglophile, left well enough alone as far as knighthoods were concerned during his 1957-63 premiership.

Who would have guessed that talk of restoring knighthoods in egalitarian Canada would resurface in the second decade of the 21st century?

The issue was first raised by an obscure guest on an equally obscure CBC Radio program in 2014, but was given a more visible platform this past Thursday when Jamie Carroll, a former national director of the Liberal Party, published an op-ed in the National Post calling for the restoration of Canadian knighthoods.

Carroll writes:

Yet in 2009 New Zealand restored knighthoods and damehoods after a nine-year hiatus, allowing recipients of the country’s top honours under the New Zealand Order of Merit to convert these into titles. Last year, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, moved to do the same, enduring a significant attack on his leadership in the process. He survived, and recipients of the senior rank of the Order of Australia are now also entitled to the prenominal Sir or Dame.

Abbott’s survival should be a cautionary tale, however. By awarding an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip without consulting his cabinet or caucus — a move described as a “captain’s call” — he offended many Australians’ egalitarian and, in some quarters, anti-monarchist sentiments.

A little more than a month later, he emerged from his party’s caucus room not so much a triumphant victor as a man rescued from the gallows at the last minute, as his fellow caucus members defeated a motion to dismiss him as party leader and prime minister by a 61-to-39 vote. The message was clear: you’re forgiven this time — but don’t confuse ‘forgiveness’ with ‘getting away with it’.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand prime minister John Key had tread more carefully on the matter of knighthoods and royalty. Yet a 2014 study by Konrad Raff of the Norwegian School of Economics and Linus Siming of Italy’s Bocconi University found that knighthoods have had mixed economic effects in New Zealand, benefitting some but weakening the economy for others.

Knighthoods, of course, tend to benefit those who are already socially connected to those who decide who gets one of these illustrious prizes. Chief executives of large organizations enjoy particularly favourable odds of getting a knighthood in those countries that still hand them out. Thus, Raff and Siming decided to test how the withdrawal, and then restoration, of this perk affected CEO behaviour in New Zealand.

They found that taking away the knighthood perk in 2000 had both a negative effect and a positive effect. CEOs who had suddenly lost their shot at a knighthood became more like those CEOs who never had a shot at a knighthood in the first place: they became more likely to reduce staff, a negative outcome, but improved the profitability and productivity of New Zealand businesses, a positive outcome.

When the knighthoods were restored in 2009, New Zealand chief executives who stood favourable odds of a knighthood once again showed a change in behaviour, hiring more staff (a good thing for those who happen to get those jobs) but more willing to let productivity and profits drop (a bad thing for job-creation in the rest of the economy); while CEOs not in line for a knighthood continued more or less as before.

Another discussion paper by Andrew Mell, Simon Radford and Seth Alexander Thévoz of the economics department at Britain’s Oxford University discusses the perception that British honours are not necessarily given out on the basis of merit but, much like Senate appointments here in Canada, are a patronage tool to reward prolific party fundraisers and others with outstanding political IOUs.

Britain had been the home of a “cash for honours” scandal in 2006, when the revelation that “100% of all Labour party donors of over £1 million since 1997 had been offered either a knighthood or a peerage” forced a police investigation of the then-Labour administration. The investigation found insufficient evidence to prosecute, but the damage was done.

The Oxford group set out to mathematically test the presumption that 27 of 779 major party donors nominated for British peerages between 2004 and 2015 could simply have been politically active people who had the good luck of being chosen for an honour without anyone taking into consideration how much money they brought in.

Their findings, in classic British understatement:

As is frequently claimed by all parties accused of selling peerages, it is of course perfectly possible that it is pure coincidence that “big donors” are disproportionately likely to be nominated for peerages. However, the odds of it being pure coincidence are roughly the same as those of entering Britain’s National Lottery five consecutive times, and winning the jackpot on each occasion. Whilst coincidence is theoretically possible, this explanation does stretch the limits of credulity.

Restated later:

As stated, we have no proof that any of the parties indulge in the sale of peerages, but the odds are overwhelmingly likely that such donors would stand an astronomically disproportionate chance of eventually being nominated for a peerage.

If knighthoods are ever reintroduced in Canada, don’t count on them being handed out purely on the basis of merit. Naturally, our elected representatives will be all too happy to nominate a loveable public figure from time to time, whose being bestowed with a knighthood generates a bit of favourable publicity for the government.

But more often than not, you could count on these honours being handed out much like Senate appointments: as incentives and thank-yous for party fundraising, and as consolation prizes for those whose political careers have come to an untimely end. As the Oxford findings show, you can literally bet on it.

Think of the CMHR not as a destination, but as an add-on

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the "Everything Churchill" web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the “Everything Churchill” web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Since before the building even started to go up, there has been widespread confusion about the role that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) would play in Manitoba’s tourism industry. This was exemplified by a 2013 news release suggesting that the city would “welcome [a] surge of visitors” once the Museum opened — and by the disappointed tone of the news this week that a “measly” and “mere” one percent of visitors last month were international tourists from countries other than the U.S.

In fact, this one percent figure is entirely unsurprising, not least because only one-third as many foreign visitors enter Canada on a typical March day as arrive on a normal day during the July-August peak. Travel Manitoba’s latest annual report shows that non-U.S. international visitors made up one percent of tourists in Manitoba in 2012, so international visitors to the Museum are at the level one would expect.

By flipping through that report, it is not difficult to guess what draws many of those international visitors who, at $772 per person-visit, spent twice as much money here as interprovincial and U.S. visitors, and nearly eight times as much as intra-provincial tourists.

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

As many of the images in the report illustrate, Manitoba’s wilderness is the province’s number-one tourism advantage.

Let’s say you’re Derek and Laura, a fictional couple of empty-nesters in their late fifties from Nottingham, England, who have decided to finally splurge to take a Canadian rail holiday. Or Stefan, a 25-year-old German from Stuttgart, completing his first year of full-time office work and looking to take a holiday with his buddies that will really impress their friends following them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Offhand, Winnipeg is to them what Nottingham and Stuttgart, two cities similar to Winnipeg in size, are to us. Sure, there are some nice things to see and do in each, such as Wollaton Hall and the Robin Hood Town Tour in Nottingham, or Palace Square and the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. But unless you have a compelling reason as a Canadian tourist to go to these places, you’re probably not going to take time away from Europe’s much bigger draws to visit these medium-sized cities.

But if you’re Derek and Laura, taking a wobbly old train into the wild Canadian frontier to see polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights might just sound like the adventure of a lifetime. And for Stefan, being a young avid angler with money to spend, the idea of a week at a middle-of-nowhere fishing lodge angling for northern pike and walleye might sound like a fantastisch idea that could never be replicated in Germany.

And that’s where the CMHR could make sense for international visitors to Manitoba. Naturally, no one will visit Winnipeg just to see a museum any more than anyone would visit London just to see the Imperial War Museum.

But if you happen to be in Winnipeg anyway, it makes sense to go see the CMHR for a mere $15 more. If you’re Derek and Laura, you’ll want to allow the train at least a twelve-hour margin of error on the return trip — this isn’t Europe, where a 15-minute delay is considered “severe” — which might mean having a couple of days in Winnipeg during which to see a few sights.

And for Stefan and his buddies, Winnipeg would be a logical jumping-off point to the North, again allowing for a short stay in the city.

Now might be a good time to mention, however, that while the CMHR might have made it on to TripAdvisor’s list of Winnipeg attractions (at #19 as of April 28), the Museum gets no top-level mention on Frommer’s listing of Winnipeg attractions, and is similarly obscure on Virtual Tourist’s site. And as far as Fodor’s is concerned, Winnipeg doesn’t even exist. With the summer high season rapidly approaching, the marketers might want to get on the case, pronto.

The Good Life

A Statistics Canada study released Monday on how Canadians assess their satisfaction with life in general produced what appeared to be, on the surface, a middling finding for Winnipeg, whose citizens rated their life satisfaction 7.9 out of 10 on average, slightly below the national average. The highest scores were in Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and St. John’s (average rating: 8.2 out of 10), and the lowest scores were in Toronto, Windsor and Vancouver (7.8 out of 10).

Yet in the bigger picture, Winnipeg was only in the lower-middle of a very narrow spread, in which the average score given in the highest and lowest ranked cities only differed by four-tenths of a point.

In terms of the percentage of residents who rated their life satisfaction as an “8 out of 10″ or better, Winnipeg’s 67 percent was at the lower end of a similarly narrow 66-to-73 percent range that 26 of the 33 metro areas were part of.

The more interesting part of the Statistics Canada report was the discussion of what makes people more likely to feel contented with their lives. A regression analysis, focused on how closely related several personal factors were to respondents’ feelings of well-being, showed that people were most likely to be satisfied with their life if:

  • They were not unemployed: Statistics Canada’s analysts found this had a “strongly negative” effect on life satisfaction.
  • They could enjoy the company of others: Single, separated, divorced or widowed people expressed lower average life satisfaction. Those who knew their neighbours and felt a sense of connection to their community tended to be more satisfied with their lives.
  • They were healthy: Statistics Canada found that “[i]ndividuals rating their health as ‘excellent’ have life satisfaction scores a full point higher than those rating their health as ‘good’, and almost three points higher than those rating their health as ‘poor’.”
  • They were making a sufficient income: The biggest gap in life satisfaction was between households with incomes of less than $30,000 annually and those in the $30,000 to $59,999 range. While average life satisfaction tended to increase as one got into the higher income levels, the gaps between income categories were not as large.

Thus, there is something to the old saying that “the best social program is a job”, which some Winnipeggers have difficulty obtaining because of low education or literacy, difficulties with arranging child care or transportation, or because of the bureaucratic nightmare associated with getting foreign degrees, diplomas and work experience recognized in Canada.

But for those who are working yet looking for a little more happiness nevertheless, the best solution might be a gym membership — preferably at a facility with a shared social area, such as a hot tub or sauna — which offers the ability to get fit and to meet others at the same time.

 

Related posts on this subject:

“Social tolerance, freedom of choice and faith among keys to happiness, say researchers” (May 10, 2009)

“Six resolutions that could help make your New Year a happier one” (Dec. 27, 2010)

“How the Scandinavians (and Swiss) got to be so ‘on the ball’ — and how we can be, too” (Jan. 12, 2014)

Last flight from Da Nang illustrated madness of war

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in early 1973, it brought a sense of relief to the United States, which had been polarized for eight years by the Vietnam War — a war over matters which never threatened U.S. domestic security, but for which many young American men were conscripted anyway. (Since evading U.S. conscription was not an extraditable offence under Canadian law, many would-be conscripts lived here in temporary exile, or became naturalized Canadian citizens.)

Yet the threat of war remained constant along the border between communist-ruled North Vietnam and the nominally democratic, but poorly governed, South Vietnam.

In late 1974, realizing that both the U.S. Congress and the American public had become demoralized about Vietnam, North Vietnam and supportive Viet Cong rebels in the South launched a military campaign to take over South Vietnam and reunify it with the North, on the North’s terms.

By mid-March 1975, the offensive had reached Da Nang, a South Vietnamese city on the central coast. Surrounded on all sides, the South Vietnamese soldiers forced into the city were cut off from the rest of their country. The North Vietnamese moved in.

On March 24, USAID, the U.S. international aid agency, contracted charter operator World Airways to fly Boeing 727s into Da Nang to evacuate women and children from the war-torn city. The Boeing 727 had the advantage of a back door, and a staircase that could be dropped from below the tail to allow refugees to scramble aboard quickly before taking off again.

More flights ferried refugees out of Da Nang in the days that followed. But the crowds at the airport became increasingly unruly as the city came closer to falling to the North Vietnamese.

Despite being warned not to attempt it, World Airways’ mercurial founder and president, Ed Daly, decided to make one last series of flights to evacuate refugees from Da Nang on Saturday, March 29. The plan was to quickly fly three Boeing 727s in at 20-minute intervals, quickly load them up with refugees, and fly each jet back to Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

Daly, planning to be aboard the first flight, invited CBS News Saigon correspondent Bruce Dunning to come along for the ride. Dunning brought along a cameraman and a sound man to record the event.

The airfield seemed deserted when the aircraft landed at Da Nang. This was a deception: thousands of people had been taking shelter, fearing the shelling taking place in the vicinity.

The thousands began making a run for the World Airways jet as soon as it slowed down — and the CBS crew began recording the scene from the windows of the aircraft.

Even before the aircraft had stopped moving, people were trying to get aboard.

“One guy got on. Jesus!”, an unidentified woman can be heard saying. A man, possibly Daly, replied with an astonished, “Huh?!”

But those reaching the plane weren’t the women and children that Daly intended to pick up. Instead, they were South Vietnamese soldiers who, in the chaos of war, had been abandoned by their superiors and left to fend for themselves.

The CBS News video, which has lost none of its shock value after 40 years, tells the rest of the story as 268 people — double the Boeing 727’s normal capacity — stormed the jet. Almost all of them, save for fewer than a dozen women and children, were fleeing soldiers. At one stage Daly, a former boxer, can be seen brandishing a gun and trying in vain to block the rear stairs, even punching South Vietnamese soldiers as they tried to board.

Yet the video only just begins to illustrate the madness that humans can descend to in a war zone. For example, the video did not capture the scenes described later by flight attendant Jan Wollett, who can be seen wearing a red uniform in the video:

Mr. Daly was at the very bottom of the air stair, waving a pistol in the air, trying to restore some kind of order. [Flight attendant Val Witherspoon] was helping people climb over the side of the stair onto the steps. I went to the bottom of the stair next to Mr. Daly. A family of five was running a few feet from me, reaching out for help to get on board. It was a mother and a father and two little children and a baby in the mother’s arms. I could see the fear in all of their faces as they ran and reached out for me. I reached back to grab the mother’s hand, but before I could get it, a man running behind them shot all five of them, and they fell and were trampled by the crowd. The last I saw of them, they were disappearing under people’s feet. There were just several loud shots, and they were gone—all five of them. And the man who shot them stepped on them to get closer to the air stair. He ran them down and jumped onto the air stair and ran up into the aircraft. And everything was so chaotic and insane, I remember registering in my mind at that mad moment: “I’ll deal with that later.” And I just kept pulling people onto the stair.

I felt a woman pulling on me from the side of the stair. She was trying to get over the rail, and she grabbed my arm. I wanted to help her on, but I also had to worry about getting pulled off the stair. I turned and grabbed her arms and tried to pull her over the rail, but a man behind her grabbed her and jerked her out of my arms, and as she fell away, he stepped on her back and on her head to get up and over the railing. He used her as a steppingstone. Mr. Daly saw that happen, and as the man swung his leg over the railing, Mr. Daly smashed him in the head with his pistol. I remember suddenly seeing a sheet of blood splash across everything and I saw the man fall off and people trample him, and I remember thinking, “Good.” That was just my reaction at that moment. The man disappeared under the feet of the mob.

The rest of Wollett’s story of that wild flight out of Da Nang 40 years ago, which makes an interesting-if-grim read, can be found here.

Singapore succeeded by being reliable, and well-educated, in a flaky world

Singapore, the Asian city-state of 5.5 million people crammed on to several islands of not much more land area than metropolitan Winnipeg, has a decidedly illiberal streak. Travelers entering the country at Changi Airport must turn their chewing gum, a prohibited good,  over to Customs officers, and submit any foreign newspapers, books or magazines, which are considered controlled goods, for inspection. Journalists, filmmakers and bloggers who irritate the government can easily find themselves being sued for libel, and the domestic servants who made up four percent of the Singaporean population in 2012 had to wait until 2013 to get the legal right to a one-day weekend despite their employers’ collective fury.

Yet amid this heavy-handedness, Singapore has made strides matched by few nations in the world to secure a higher quality of life for its citizens. When it obtained its independence in 1965 — unusually, by being expelled from Malaysia — it was an impoverished country with a GDP per capita of $500 U.S.

Nearly fifty years later, in 2013, Singapore’s GDP per capita was equivalent to $55,000 U.S. It is unequally distributed wealth, to be sure. But just a kilometre away, across the narrow strait that separates the two countries, Malaysia’s per capita GDP was just $10,000 U.S. that same year.

The gap between Singapore and Indonesia, just 10 kilometres away in the opposite direction, is even more extreme: at $3,475 U.S. per capita, Indonesia was as poor in 2013 as Singapore was at independence in inflation-adjusted terms.

Much of this will be credited to Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister who ruled Singapore directly from 1959 to 1990, and then indirectly as “Senior Minister” and then “Minister Mentor” until 2011, who died at age 91 today.

What was so special about Lee’s rule that allowed a tiny island country that seemed to have everything going against it in 1965 to achieve a level of success that eluded its neighbours just a few kilometres away?

A 2013 op-ed by Prof. Calestous Juma of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University noted that Singapore’s success largely came down to focusing on the right priorities. Most important among these were the fact that Singapore offered a far more honest and reliable system of government than its neighbours, and a well-educated and largely bilingual English- and Mandarin Chinese-speaking workforce. As Juma wrote:

In fact, governance distinguished Singapore from its neighbors. As Lee Kuan Yew says: “They are not clean systems; we run clean systems. Their rule of law is wonky; we stick to it. We become reliable and credible to investors.”

His key message on the driving force behind Singapore’s success is simple: “The quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single most important factor determining national competitiveness. It is the people’s innovativeness, entrepreneurship, team work, and their work ethic that gives them that sharp keen edge in competitiveness.”

He emphasizes the importance of knowledge in economic transformation but also rejects the classical separation between scholarship and entrepreneurship. “Those with good minds to be scholars should also be inventors, innovators, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs; they must bring new products and services to the market to enrich the lives of people everywhere.”

This lesson from the evolution of Singapore’s educational system poses great challenges for most developing countries. They run outmoded educational systems that do not reflect the entrepreneurial demands of modern times.

Juma also notes that Singapore succeeded by having transportation and communications links to the rest of the world that not only worked reliably, but would not have been possible without the rule of law:

One of the critical areas that require tough decisions include large infrastructure investments that lay the foundations for economic growth. Singapore built “world-class infrastructure…good communications by air, by sea, by cable, by satellite, and now over the Internet.”  But such long-term investments demand not only having long-term economic vision, but consistence and predictability in the rule of law.

That offering reliability — reliable administration, reliable rule of law, reliable education, reliable communication, and reliable transportation, among other things — is the key to national success should be a surprise to no one. It is by the same formula that Denmark, Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland and Norway came to make the Top Five in this blog’s World’s 10 Best-Managed Countries list in December, 2014.

And they did so without Singaporean-style illiberalism: in fact, those top-five countries are about as small-l liberal as they come.

The Singaporean lesson offers ideas for consideration here in Manitoba, a province that perceives itself to be an economic under-performer.

Manitoba already benefits from some of the same attributes that allowed Singapore to grow: reliable communications links to the rest of the world and the rule of law most of all.

But Manitoba lags most in producing healthy, well-educated people —  the “single most important factor” in building a competitive economy, as noted above.

Manitoba regularly ranks lower than almost every other province in terms of educational outcomes. While 68 percent of the Canadian labour force aged 25 years and over had a college diploma, trades certification or university degree in 2014, Manitoba’s 60 percent was not only well below the national average, it was the worst of the 10 provinces.

The 11 percent of the age-25-plus labour force who never finished high school was the second highest rate in Canada, just below Prince Edward Island’s 12 percent and somewhat higher than the Canadian average of eight percent.

To be fair, improving Manitoba’s performance in this area is something that Manitoba governments have been working away at for the past 20 years or so, recognizing not just that poor educational outcomes condemn not just the living to a lower quality of life, but that a parent’s educational outcome is one of the best predictors of their children’s eventual outcome.

This has also been helped by Manitoba’s eager intake of immigrants, whose children “were much more likely to participate in postsecondary education than students with [Canadian]-born parents”, as Statistics Canada noted in 2013. This suggests that in addition to meeting current labour market needs, immigration could also change Manitoba’s core culture from one that until the ’50s largely disregarded higher education to one that eagerly embraces it.

While it won’t necessarily produce an economic miracle of Singaporean proportions, sticking diligently to improving educational attainment rates among those born here and bringing in as many newcomers with great ambitions for their children as we can accommodate would serve Manitoba well.

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