Growing in Singapore and beyond
Foreign Minister George Yeo spoke at the Medical Alumni's 87th anniversary dinner last month. Below is an edited excerpt of his address.
IN A rather provocative recent article titled 'In China's orbit' in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard University Professor Niall Ferguson talked about the Chinese increasingly thinking of themselves as masters of the world.
'The Cold War lasted little more than four decades, and the Soviet Union never came close to overtaking the US economically. What we (Westerners) are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance. This time the Eastern challenger is for real, both economically and geopolitically. The gentlemen in Beijing may not be the masters just yet. But one thing is certain. They are no longer the apprentices.'
With the United States and Europe facing severe economic challenges, the Western world is feeling somewhat dispirited. In contrast, the mood in Asia is upbeat. China is of course a big story. Martin Jacques, in his book When China Rules The World, concluded that 'Chinese modernity will be very different from Western modernity, and that China will transform the world far more fundamentally than any other new global power in the last two centuries'.
But it is not only China. India is also rising. The Asean region will be pulled along by the re-emergence of these two nations. Even West Asia, with all its problems, is enjoying rapid growth. If Iran abjures all ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, its power and influence will be no less than that of Turkey.
One by one, the major countries of Asia have rid themselves of Western domination, recovered their sense of self, modernised and re-emerged as major powers. It started with Japan, followed by the newly industrialised countries (or NIEs), then Asean, China, India, Turkey and one day, hopefully, Iran. An Asia long divided by Western powers into spheres of influence is being reconnected again.
Western fears of China's dominance in the 21st century are overdone. That China will become one of the world's great powers is not in doubt and the size of its economy may overtake America's in 20 to 30 years' time. On a per capita basis, however, China still has a long way to go. When China's Vice-President (Xi Jinping) was in Singapore last week, he reminded us that China's per capita gross domestic product is only one-tenth that of Singapore's. Also, by the middle of this century, China's population will have peaked and ageing will be a major challenge. By contrast, the demographics of India, other parts of Asia and the US will stay favourable for much longer.
Pax Americana will therefore not be replaced by a Pax Sinica. Instead, it is being replaced by a messier multi-polar reality with the American pole likely to remain pre-eminent for decades to come. From only one sun in the solar system, there will be a few, with the US and China the largest. There will be other suns like India and some very big planets like Brazil. In this new gravitational field, smaller planets, asteroids and comets will enjoy greater orbital freedom.
This metaphor, however, assumes the Westphalian system of nation-states will remain dominant. In fact, this is unlikely. Everywhere we are seeing signs of the nation-state weakening. With globalisation and interdependence, various aspects of sovereignty are being surrendered to regional and international organisations.
The European Union has taken regional integration the furthest. In our own region, Asean will become more important in the future. When an Asean community is formalised in 2015, we are likely to see the Asean flag fluttering side by side with the national flag in our foreign missions, following the European example. Asean foreign ministers have been toying with the idea of Asean countries making a joint bid to host the Fifa World Cup some time in the future, even the desirability of fielding an Asean team. Of course this is for football associations, sports ministers and Fifa to decide, not foreign ministers.
Beyond regional groupings, international organisations like the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund exercise supranational power. When we stare at challenges like climate change, nuclear proliferation and global pandemics, there is no alternative to greater international coordination and action.
As borders become more porous, pre-Westphalian tribal links will revive and strengthen. Because tribal networks of trust and knowledge are deep-set, they are tenacious and cross national borders. These networks are the first to exploit and benefit from globalisation.
Joel Kotkin in (his book) Tribes (How Race, Religion And Identity Determine Success In The New Global Economy) saw successful cities as those with the densest tribal networks. Singapore has always been a hub for international tribal networks - not only Chinese, Indian and South-east Asian ones, but also others. And the story continues in this century. For example, we are rediscovering and recovering our Middle Eastern connections.
New tribes and tribal networks are emerging. Alumni networks have become more important worldwide. The top schools are responding to the challenge of globalisation through overseas campuses, franchises, joint degrees and alliances. We see so many models being experimented with in Singapore and Malaysia.
Countries, regional groupings, international organisations and tribes are but different ways of organising human beings. As in the biological world, they are subject to a Darwinian test of competition and survival. Over time, the fittest forms of human organisation prosper and multiply. Looking ahead, it is far from clear what forms of human organisation will prevail. What we do know is that all existing forms are being challenged by the revolution in technology and by globalisation. It is also clear that the Western model is no longer seen as the only way to the future, and that the Chinese way can only work for Confucianist cultures.
At the deepest level, culture is what enables human beings to form communities. Institutions endure only if they enjoy the respect and affection of the people. Rules and punishments are essential, but they, by themselves, cannot create communities without a unifying culture. Cultures are like operating systems that enable computers, smart phones, routers and servers to network.
Arnold Toynbee in his Study Of History analysed the rise and fall of civilisations, and the encounter of civilisations. Each advance in human society represents a successful response to a challenge - the greater the challenge, the greater the response. After a few centuries, the Western encroachment into Asia has finally resulted in a comprehensive response that is transforming human civilisation and creating one interconnected world.
This interconnection creates huge benefits, but also opens up new vulnerabilities. No individual or company or country can amount to anything if it is not connected to this World Wide Web. But once you are connected, the virus that infects the system can infect you as well.
What we are seeing now, and it is a huge drama, is the urbanisation of the entire world. Toynbee called it the Ecumenopolis. Cities are concentrations of human brains connected to other cities by a multiplicity of links which are like synaptic connections.
These new trends weaken the power of nation-states. To borrow a term from finance, old hierarchies are being disintermediated. Coercion is much less effective in this new dispensation. Instead, cities that thrive are those with cultures and policies that attract talent, knowledge and capital.
During the period of the Warring States in China, scholars chose the kings or princes to serve; so too in Europe during the Renaissance. Talented individuals today choose the cities, universities or football clubs they want to belong to. Capital flows where it is welcomed. Patriotism is giving way to multiple loyalties. Many countries now allow dual, even multiple, citizenships.
All nation-states, indeed all human organisations, have to adjust to this new environment. Those which are quick to adapt will thrive. Smaller countries which are used to diversity may enjoy an advantage. Xenophobic communities will be stuck in the past.
Singapore's operating system
SINGAPORE is well positioned to meet the new challenges. After it was established as a trading post for the East India Company, Singapore quickly became a major node in the British Empire. Free trade, the protection of property, Anglo-Saxon law and accounting standards and the use of the English language were prerequisites then, as they are now. The cultural diversity which we inherited has become part of our DNA.
If I can describe the Singapore operating system, it is one based upon respect for the individual's deep programming and does not try to mess with it. 'Singaporean-ness' is the higher software which binds individuals of different ethnic and religious backgrounds together in cooperative effort. The operating principle is rational, meritocratic and rules-based. The criteria for achievement and success are internationally benchmarked.
Because of the large influx of foreigners into Singapore in the last few years, there has been a domestic reaction. Although the large presence of foreigners in Singapore could be an issue in the coming elections, this is a manageable problem because Singaporeans are themselves migrants or the descendants of migrants.
Singapore's operating system, how-ever, need not be confined to the island. It is not limited by our geographical size and can expand regionally and internationally. This has been happening for some years now. Foreigners can plug into that operating system not only in Singapore, but anywhere in the world where the Singapore network extends. Overseas, Singaporeans often make up only a minority in the Singapore network. Companies like PSA, SIA, NOL, Keppel and Sembawang operate facilities all over the world with mostly local staff.
The Singapore operating system adds value to the individuals who plug into it. Many non-Singaporeans who do so earn significantly more than if they were to plug into their own local networks. Some of the value-added accrues to Singapore. Operating systems compete worldwide to attract productive individuals.
Singapore as a geographical city-state can grow only so much because of our physical limitations. However, Singapore as an operating system can continue to grow for a long time to come.
Of course the operating system must adapt to the country it operates in and bring benefits to the host. Singapore in China operates differently from Singapore in India.
In our domestic debate about the number of foreigners working or living in Small Singapore, we must not lose sight of the Big Singapore beyond our tiny island in Asean, China, India and elsewhere.
Dec 8, 2010
China needs to stay true to its civilisation
By Wang Gungwu
The modern language used conveys quite a different image. Thus China seems to be locked into the prevailing strategic thinking that sees any rising power as a danger to the status quo.
Dec 7, 2010
Towards a new Sino-US world order
PROFESSOR Niall Ferguson has coined the term an 'apolar world', in which an overstretched US gradually recedes from its hegemonic role around the globe but is replaced by... nobody.
China, in this view, is too focused on maintaining stability as it modernises its society to take on broad international commitments. Europe is hobbled by its long-term demographic decline. In the absence of a global rule-keeper, religious strife, local internecine conflicts and non-state rogue actors, like Al-Qaeda, will rend the world.
It is said that nature abhors a vacuum; so does the international system. Chaos, if it occurs, will sooner or later settle down into a new order. It is the task of statesmanship to try to bring about what must happen ultimately and save humanity untold suffering.
It may be time to look at a functional approach to issues of world order. The European Union eventually emerged because, in the absence of a political construction, functional entities were created bringing together countries with comparable interest into a common enterprise. The European Coal and Steel Community was a necessary first step.
Is it possible to construct a functional approach on a wider than regional but less than global basis, with those countries most affected taking a leading role? Afghanistan is a case in point. Virtually no country within strategic reach of Afghanistan, or certainly in the region, has an interest in seeing a Taleban victory, the presence of Al-Qaeda as a state within a state and the potential splintering of the country into Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements.
Even Iran, as a Shi'ite country, should wish to prevent a virulently anti-Shi'ite fundamentalist regime returning to power in Kabul. For Pakistan, the ascendancy of Islamic jihadists in a neighbouring state would serve to destabilise the Pakistani regime. India has every incentive to prevent ignition of jihadist fervour. Former Soviet republics, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, would be destabilised by ethnic unrest and irredentism that would be unleashed in Afghanistan should Pashtun fanatics succeed in seizing control of the country. The impact of radical Islamism on Xinjiang defines a potential Chinese interest.
All these countries have a more vital interest in a stable and coherent Afghan state than does the US. For the time being, the American role is explained to the American public on the grounds that it serves a vital national interest, and it is acceptable to the parties in the region because they know we have no design on a permanent presence in Afghanistan. But an essentially unilateral American role cannot be a long-term solution.
The long-term solution must involve a consortium of countries in defining, and then protecting and guaranteeing, that country. America should be in a sustaining, rather than a central controlling, role. The key issue is whether this long-term solution can be built on concurrently with the substantially unilateral American effort now or has to await its end, either in success or frustration. It would be a sad outcome were so passive a posture to be the result.
The relationship of America to China is an essential element of such an approach and of international order. The prospects of global peace and order may well depend on it. Many writers have drawn an analogy between China's emergence as a great power and potential rival of the US today and Germany's ascendancy in Europe a hundred years ago, when Britain was the dominant international power but proved unable to integrate Germany.
But the case of China is even more complicated. It is not an issue of integrating a European-style nation-state but a full-fledged continental power. China's ascendancy is accompanied by massive socio-economic change and, in some instances, dislocation internally. China's ability to continue to manage its emergence as a great power side by side with its internal transformation is one of the pivotal questions of our time.
Increased popular participation is not the inevitable road to international reconciliation, as is often asserted. A century ago, Germany was gradually allowing more and more freedom of speech and press. But that newfound freedom in the public sphere gave vent to an assortment of voices, including a chauvinistic tendency insisting on an ever more assertive foreign policy. Western leaders would do well to keep this in mind when hectoring China on its internal politics.
I would like to conclude with one general point: Both the US and China are less nations in the European sense than continental expressions of a cultural identity. Neither has much practice in cooperative relations with equals. Yet their leaders have no more important task than to implement the truths that neither country will ever be able to dominate the other, and that conflict between them would exhaust their societies and undermine the prospects of world peace.
Such a conviction is an ultimate form of realism. It requires a pattern of continuous cooperation on key issues, not constant debates on short-term crises.
TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES