Rapid transition

CargoClanLogoThe living is easy in some Asian cities – streamlined, ordered, functional. Others, in their own charming way, can be hell on wheels. Inching traffic in Bangkok and Jakarta can drive the most easy-going commuter stir-crazy; Ho Chi Minh City’s roaring fleets of weaving motor-cycles, Phnom Penh’s potholed and obstacle-strewn pavements – all anathema to the tidy-minded. Yet crowds of expatriates enjoy the bursting life and character of these Asian megapolises.


Various quality of life indices have made it easier for multinational companies to compensate employees for “hardship” postings, but there’s always something to argue about.


On the transport front, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 Global Liveability Survey ranks both the quality of the road networks in Jakarta and Bangkok, and the cities’ public transport, as either ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘undesirable’ (rankings just above the bottom level of ‘intolerable’).


In Jakarta, developers are building an array of luxury apartment blocks to cater for traffic-constrained wealthy residents who object to spending more than two hours every day in a crawling car, even if the ever-inventive commuters have come up with ways to pass the time in their nearly stationary vehicles – eating, drinking, buying doodads, newspapers or garlands of flowers from vendors who stalk the traffic lines, or even taking care of office work or homework.


Attempts to streamline the city’s traffic have not been noted for their success. In rush hour, on certain streets, Jakarta police can penalise drivers without passengers, a regulation that has spawned a mini service industry – the squadrons of “car jockeys” who wait at strategic points to pose as passengers, for a small fee of course. The city’s authorities have announced construction will soon begin on a metro subway (20 years too late, say most critics) but in the short term it could well make the jams even stickier.


In Bangkok, the elevated skytrain has been so revolutionary that many traffic-weary residents now plan their lives according to the expanding skytrain network, refusing to ever travel far from the stations of the BTS or its sister underground, the MTR. Other braver souls risk their lives on the back of motorbike taxis that skim between cars (a perilous form of transport known as “ojek” in Indonesia).


In Kuala Lumpur, the airport express is a revelation, and an elevated railway in the city, as well as the railway network and the freeways, keep commuters moving. The EIU rates the Kuala Lumpur’s roads as “tolerable”, and the city’s public transport as “uncomfortable”.


In Singapore, the public transport is enviably clean and functional (and chewing-gum free, thanks to a nanny-state government ban). Anyone who nevertheless prefers to drive must pay handsomely for the privilege, via taxes and government fees. Still, all that green commuting doesn’t save the city-state from periodic bouts of horrendous airborne pollution, mostly smog (sometimes called “haze”) drifting over from Indonesia, where burning down the jungle is considered an advanced farming method.


Even so, Singapore is widely regarded as one of the most livable cities in Asia. The global human resources firm Mercer ranks Singapore as the number one Asian city in its 2012 Quality of Living survey, and the number one city in the world for infrastructure: electricity supply, water availability, telephone and mail services, public transportation, traffic congestion and the range of international flights servicing the airport.


And in this city-state, with its substantial amounts of greenery (far more, proportionately, than, say, Bangkok), the visible smog is unusual: unlike the smog that regularly rolls in over Hong Kong, blankets the mountains on the edge of Jakarta (some temporary residents don’t even realise there are mountains until the city slows down for Ramadan), and blurs Bangkok’s horizons.


Like Singapore, Hong Kong has a superb integrated public transport network of buses, trains and trams, and owning a car seems an unnecessary luxury. Still, some of the city’s wealthier residents happily pay more for a car space than many pay for an entire apartment – the soaring cost of renting or buying property has always been a dampener for expats, offset, of course, by the minimal income tax levied by the Hong Kong authorities.


The EIU rates Hong Kong’s “availability of good quality housing” as acceptable, but even small apartments in desirable locations can be eye-wateringly expensive. Space is money, as the residents of the city’s notoriously squalid and tiny cage-homes might say, echoed perhaps by the purchaser of the Hong Kong flat that sold for US$58.7 million last year. Home prices more than doubled between 2009 and early 2013, but government cooling measures have since drawn a little heat out of the market.


Rents (and hotel tariffs) are rocketing skywards in Yangon, too, as westerners flood into town following Myanmar’s rapid transformation from an oppressed military state to something closer to a free and democratic nation. Office rents can now equal the most expensive in Asia. A new fleet of taxis has made getting around a little easier, and some hardened visitors have been amazed to find a cab with proper suspension and, occasionally, air-conditioning.


Private healthcare is widely available across Asia, and the larger Bangkok private hospitals are popular with health tourists looking for cheaper surgery (facelifts and sex change operations feature prominently in pan-Asian gossip). The EIU rates private healthcare in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and Hong Kong as “acceptable” or “tolerable”, and only in Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta is the private healthcare rated “uncomfortable”, although Jakarta residents insist the city’s private healthcare clinics are pretty good, on the whole.


Standing back for the overall view, south-east Asia economies are predicted to grow – if only marginally in some cases – with growth rates ranging from a low of 0.2 per cent in Singapore to a high of 7.2 per cent in Cambodia. According to the International Labour Organisation, the unemployment rate was more or less steady at 4.5 per cent across south-east Asia and the Pacific last year.


But of course there is a cloud to this silver lining. With GDP growth comes, almost by default, yet more air and water pollution, and that’s the last thing Asia needs.