Since 1976, GDP growth has averaged 6.8% a year. The past decade has seen vertiginous swings, from a slight recession in 2009 as the global crisis battered a very trade-dependent economy to a 15.2% leap in GDP in 2010. Since then growth has stabilised in the range of 2-4% a year, which the government expects to continue for the next few years. Unemployment is low, just under 2%, and prices are subdued without stoking worries about deflation. The national finances look just as robust.

Thanks to the CPF, Singapore enjoys a very high saving rate: nearly 50% of GDP. With investment averaging a still impressive 30% or so of GDP a year, the country has a structural surplus on its current account which last year reached 19% of GDP, a higher proportion than in any other developed economy. It also maintains a consistent fiscal surplus in conventional terms. The constitution mandates that the budget must be balanced over the political cycle, but ring-fences half of the projected long-term investment income earned on the government’s reserves. When all the returns were added in, estimated the IMF, the surplus for the fiscal year ending March 2014 was 5.7% of GDP, compared with the official figure of 1.1%.

The full extent of the country’s reserves is a closely guarded secret. They are managed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS, the central bank) and two sovereign-wealth funds, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) and Temasek Holdings. The government defends the opaque structure as a necessity: should the Singapore dollar ever come under attack, it can keep the assailants guessing. Nevertheless, the secrecy gives rise to occasional rumours that the reserves are smaller—or more probably bigger—than most suspect.

Singapore seems well placed to withstand an external financial crisis. It is a diversified economy with a strong manufacturing base as well as many service industries. But it is, its officials like to say, “at an inflection point”. It cannot continue as it has done because a growth model that relies on so many immigrant workers is unsustainable and has already become politically contentious. The government has been trying to prepare for change, with a typically intense focus on the core issue of labour productivity.

A white paper on population in 2013 made a number of assumptions about the productivity of Singaporean workers in order to calculate how many foreigners might be needed. It worked out that, even with the controversially high levels of immigration it projected, Singapore would have to reverse a long-term slide in productivity if it wanted to maintain GDP growth of 2-3% a year between now and 2030. Productivity grew at an annual average of 5.2% in the 1980s and 3.1% in the 1990s but just 1.8% in the 2000s. The White Paper set a target of a 2-3% annual increase in average productivity for 2010-30. If Singapore falls short of that target, it will have to get used either to slower economic growth or even more immigrants.

At the micro level, says Ravi Menon, managing director of the MAS, it is possible to see some “positive mindset shifts to increase efficiency”, but “the macro productivity numbers are still not showing it.” In 2013 productivity increased by just 0.3%, and last year it actually fell by 0.8%. Some of the structural changes being made to improve it—notably rebalancing the education system towards more vocational and skills training and greater emphasis on creativity—will take years to make a difference. But measures such as the establishment of a S$2 billion fund to help businesses innovate and automate, and an increase in the levies employers must pay to hire foreign workers, might have been expected to provide a boost already.

A big part of the solution, the government hopes, lies in cyberspace. Singapore has invested heavily in the infrastructure of the internet: exchanges and island-wide broadband access at home, and undersea cables that route much of the internet traffic between Japan and Europe through Singapore. But despite high internet usage and smartphone penetration, it scores less well on an “e-intensity” index developed by BCG, a consultancy, than countries such as South Korea, Denmark and even Britain. The index measures the availability of digital infrastructure, internet use by businesses, government and consumers, and spending on online commerce and advertising. Michael Meyer of BCG says Singapore falls short in three “output factors”—the adoption of e-commerce; the use of the internet in small and medium-sized enterprises; and in advertising spending.

One initiative that may help change that is the government’s “Smart Nation” drive, involving a further improvement of internet connectivity, the deployment of sensors all over the island to garner more big data and the use of those data to develop new applications. Some interesting ideas are in the works. In transport, these include point-to-point buses on commuting routes where demand is high, and driverless taxis for the “last mile” to the tube station; in health care there is already an app that alerts those trained in first aid of an emergency nearby; and in caring for the elderly, an alert might be sent to family or neighbours if, say, a tap has not been used for a while.

In the retail, hospitality and construction industries especially, the addiction to cheap foreign labour seems hard to kick. Government officials point to promising developments: online check-in for flights; restaurants offering iPads in lieu of waiters; supermarkets moving to self-checkout tills; security guards being replaced with cameras. But counter-examples are also legion: the handyman who used to do the job himself in 30 minutes but now employs two Sri Lankans to do it in an hour; the employers sometimes caught with “ghost” Singaporean workers on their books for whom they pay CPF contributions so they can get a foreign-worker quota. As one government official notes, it is a feature of inflection points that things can go either way.