Summerim in Asia: Trends in China, Life in Singapore

By Bryce Bower, Editor in Chief

This last summer I had the pleasure of exploring Shanghai and Singapore with a group of my fellow Thunderbird students. Under the tutelage of Professor Booth, we toured companies like Honeywell, Amazon, and GM/Buick. We met with dozens of Thunderbird Alumni working in Singapore and Shanghai, and learned about the struggles and joys of working in these cities. If any of the almuni we met are reading this, I just want to say “thank you” and to let you know that we felt very welcomed. It was a pleasant reminder of how easy it is to connect with fellow T-birds all over the world.

Trends in China

China has surpassed the United States in AI and machine learning technologies. Their surge ahead of the West may be partly due to some self-imposed restraints that companies like Google have shown. Recently, thousands of Google employees acknowledged the potential dark side of AI technologies and the direction their company was headed.  They urged their superiors not to sign a contract with the Pentagon that would use Google’s AI to analyze drone footage. To do so, they argued, would go against Google’s famous motto of “Don’t be evil”. As many industries in China are at least partially state owned, AI is seen as a matter of national security, and thus these potential evils may seem necessary. If they are not leaders in technology, they may be threatened by those who are.

Law enforcement in China is putting facial recognition and artificial intelligence to use, for better or worse. If you cross certain streets illegally in China, cameras will take a picture of your face and a ticket will be mailed to your house. When surfing the web, not only were sites like Facebook and Google blocked, but (we were informed) our activity on public wifi was monitored by employees of the Chinese government. To use WeChat, the Chinese messenger app, you must agree to the terms that WeChat (the Chinese government) can access all of your text messages, contacts, and photos.

The Shanghai skyline.

In the last couple of years, multinational firms in China have stopped hiring ex-pats– as the quality of skilled laborers has seemingly caught up to Western counterparts. When we toured the Buick GM factory, our tour guide told us that the manufacturing quality has improved so much that Buick recently started shipping cars from China to the US. This shocked me.  Surprisingly, the average age of a Buick customer in China is around 26, while the average American Buick purchaser is 57 years old.

The most surprising thing I learned during the Summerim was the sheer purchasing power of the exploding middle-class in China. Roughly 300 million Chinese people now have disposable income and are developing more sophisticated tastes. For comparison, the population of America is 320 million people. Imagine if you could create a hot new product that 300 million people would buy. This is the pull to China, why so many try their luck to either make it or break it.

Two men cleaning plastic out of the river.

All in all, I feel much more positive about China after visiting and meeting people in Shanghai. There are taking huge steps to reduce pollution and clean up their air and water. Furthermore, I was able to look at politics from a different perspective, and that in the US we may only be hearing half of the story. After visiting the US Consulate in Shanghai and listening to one of the directors, the image of the Evil Trade Menace that Fox and CNN paint China as just didn’t make sense any more. Yes, they are not holding up their end of the bargain in certain trade agreements, but I believe this new tariff war is seen as a gross overreaction and an insult to Chinese sovereignty.

Life in Singapore

No durians on board!

Singapore is a gorgeous island that feels a bit like the set of a Disney movie sometimes. Three major ethnic groups live together in state-mandated harmony, on an island which is both a city and a country. On this island, littering is severely punished and carrying foul smelling durian fruits on public transportation is a $500 fine. There are rainstorms nearly every day, and Singapore experiences lightning about 170 days out of the year. This sounds like a fictitious place, right? Well, this magical place happens to be THE hub for business in South East Asia.

Singapore is an attractive location for business in Asia due to its very low corporate tax rate of 17% and its rather stable government. However, the cost of living is insane. Buying and driving a car is a great example. To get your Certificate of Entitlement to buy a car costs around $45,000 (USD). The government keeps the prices high in order to keep the number of cars on the road to a minimum.

These licenses let you purchase a car, and then you have to pay a rather steep price to get a car onto the island. A new Toyota Corolla costs as much as $90,000. I can only imagine how much the Lamborghinis and Ferarris I saw would cost. Despite the humidity and heat– in business formal attire, Singapore was a blast. We were able to visit some amazing companies and cultural sites, and through our projects we took an in depth look at the different cultures and industries of Singapore. If you haven’t been, I would highly recommend it.

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