India versus Singapore – What an Airport Says About a Country

Published: January 29, 2007

Author: David Rodnitzky

India’s got problems. Specifically when it comes to organization, process, and execution. Singapore, by contrast, is a well-oiled machine. The contrast between these two countries is at it’s clearest on a flight between the two.

Now before I get too many of my Indian brethren angry at me, let me caveat this post by saying this: there is no question that India has many, many brilliant, hard-working, innovative, interesting people. To wit, the folks I met at Mercantila-Bangalore often embodied these very qualities!

What I’m talking about here is India as an entire country – the government, the infrastructure; how life works on a day-to-day basis.

So now on to my airport story.

Last Friday I left our Bangalore office for the airport. While waiting outside in the cab, I noticed a massive fire on the sidewalk in front of the office. Upon further inquiry, I learned that this was actually an intentionally-set garbage-fire. Apparently instead of hiring garbage pick-up, some businesses just hire poor women to sweep up garbage and then light it on fire. Shockingly, Bangalore has quite a smog problem.

When we got near the airport, we realized that the traffic was in such utter chaos that it would actually be impossible to be dropped off at the arrival area. We’re talking wall-to-wall rickshaws facing every different direction, combined with throngs of people, wild dogs, and a few trucks thrown in for good measure. So we jumped out of the cab and walked through the traffic to the entrance.

At the entrance, there were approximately 150 people outside the door. Blocking the door was a lone policeman. Every few minutes, he would arbitrarily let people into the airport. No one seemed to know why this was the case, nor did anyone seem to care. As we were on a schedule, we pushed our way through the crowd and managed to be let into the building. No doubt it helped that we were Westerners, otherwise I might still be outside in the crowd waiting.

The lines at the Singapore Airlines check-in area were, of course, huge, despite the fact that it looked like there were at least 25 people working behind the counter. After about a 30 minute wait, I finally made it to the front. Since I was flying stand-by, I was told to “wait five minutes” while someone in the back office determined my status.

Five minutes later, I checked with the counter and I was told to come back in ten more minutes. Ten minutes later (now 10:10PM with a departure time of 11:10PM) I was told to come back at 10:30. When I explained that it would be difficult to make it through both immigration and security in 40 minutes, I got a nod and an “OK, sure.” The 25 people behind the counter appeared to be chatting amongst themselves.

So at 10:20 I had finally had enough. I marched up to the counter and planted myself in front of the counter employee. After a couple of minutes trying to ignore me, he finally relented and went back to talk to the back office (to do this, he needed to step onto a moving baggage conveyor belt, then jump down to get to the office). After a few more minutes, I was given a boarding pass.

Upon reaching immigration, however, we learned that we could not proceed further unless all our bags had name-tags on them (they have to stamp the name-tags. Of course, they didn’t have any at customs . . .). We went downstairs to get name-tags. So now it is 10:35PM – 35 minutes to take off. The security line was of course about 100 people deep with little organization (imagine a snaking line but without any ropes to define the snake).

By 10:50 we had moved about 1/2 through the line and were getting a little antsy about getting on our flight. Amazingly, the guy who had been handling the check-in for Singapore Airlines was now suddenly in charge of the security line. Perhaps recognizing that my prediction that we would miss the plan was indeed coming true, he grabbed us and rushed us to the front of the line.

By 11PM we made it through security, and then through the ‘bag name-tag’ check. After that there was yet another security counter (not sure what this one was about) but as our plane was about to take off, the security folks allowed us to skip this last bit of security and actually catch our plane.

By contrast, when I arrived in Singapore, the process was a wee bit easier to say the least. Instead of gigantic lines, I simply grabbed a number from a machine and waited to be called. While waiting, I enjoyed a fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and a free foot massage (by a machine). Had I wanted to, I could have also taken advantage of free Internet, free Xbox video games, a free movie theater, free roof-top pool, an orchid garden, and plenty of duty-free shopping.

When it was finally my turn to talk to someone in customer service, I was told that they would page me when they knew of my status. For the record, there were only three people working the customer service line. Sure enough, 45 minutes later I was paged and got a seat on the plane. The woman at the customer service even recognized me before I approached her.

So, let’s review. Bangalore with its flaming piles of trash, closed airport entrance, long lines, unhelpful gate agents, random security name-tag rules, and 25 people sitting around chatting . . . versus Singapore with free foot massages, orderly lines, and just three customer service agents who managed to efficiently serve everyone they encountered.

Bangalore, where only by pushiness and sheer will was I able to make my plane . . . versus Singapore where I waited patiently, fully confident that if I had a right to make the plane, it would happen.

India, with 1.1 billion people and GDP of $720B ($654 GDP per capita) . . . versus Singapore, with 4.5 million people and GDP of $110B ($224,000 GDP per capita).

For the record, I recognize that there are aspects of Singapore that I could easily criticize – the Draconian government, the blind obedience of its citizens’ to order at all costs, etc. Is the trade-off between less freedom and more order worth it? Do the means justify the ends?

At the end of the day, it isn’t for me to decide. It’s really up to the people of India and Singapore to determine what’s right for them.

I can say this though: from a purely business perspective, I am certain that the heavy-handedness of the Singaporean government provides more opportunities than the apparently laissezfaire approach of Indian leaders. Singapore is a country built for business. India is a country with tremendous business opportunities, most of which will remain untapped as long as the government is unable to create order from the chaos.

That makes travel frustrating for me. More importantly, for all of the smart people I met during my time in Bangalore, disorder restricts their ability to fully participate in – and benefit from – the global economy. That’s a shame for them, and for us as well.

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