Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Future Trends 2065: Whither Singapore?

[Some of these may have been saved previously, but this is a thematic collection of the essays.]

JUN 14, 2015

Chua Mui Hoong
Opinion Editor

What do you get when a bunch of thinkers - some sombre, some out-of-the-box, all specialists in their fields - are tasked to put on their horizon-scanning caps to imagine the future?

A cornucopia of ideas, that's what.

The Straits Times has been running a series of essays on Mondays in the Opinion pages from leading thinkers, titled SG+50: Future Trends 2065.

Their brief: Write about trends that will affect Singapore in the next five decades.

We have published five so far; and have another 15 to go. The series is supported by Singapore's port operator PSA.

As the editor in charge of commissioning and shaping this series, I've been having an exhilarating journey reading the essays as they land in my mailbox.

You know the frisson you get when you read something that you know immediately is both profound and chilling, and that will - or should - alter the worldview of anyone reading it?

I got that from Professor Wang Gungwu's essay on Singapore's "Chinese dilemma" - on the challenges facing Singapore, as a majority Chinese society in ethnically diverse Southeast Asia, in a region with an emergent, more assertive China.

Prof Wang was born in Indonesia, raised in Malaysia and educated in China, Malaya and London. He has taught in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.

His own background gives him a unique perspective on Chinese-majority societies. As an outsider-insider, someone who has worked and lived here for years, but who is Australian by nationality, he is able to dissect Singapore's options clearly and dispassionately. Will Singapore's Chinese population be divided in their attitudes towards China as a superpower? What might be Singapore's role if nationalism turns ugly in neighbouring countries, and people of Chinese descent are attacked there? These are touchy issues, dealt with delicately by Prof Wang.

Coincidentally, another thinker in Singapore touched on the ethnicity-foreign policy connection. Bilahari Kausikan warned that big powers in the region will want to influence domestic opinion on foreign policy.

In his usual plain-speaking trenchant style, the former foreign affairs permanent secretary has little patience with those who do not understand the existential realities of Singapore's position as a small, very rich and ethnically diverse city-state, in a poor, volatile region that is becoming the geopolitical arena for a big power contest of wills.

"I was flabbergasted when a Singaporean PhD candidate in political science in a local university asked me why Singapore could not pursue a foreign policy like that of Denmark or Switzerland.

"It was quite a struggle to remain calm and reply blandly that it is because Singapore is in South-east Asia, not Europe, and the circumstances of these regions are obviously different. If a PhD candidate could ask such a silly question, I shudder to think what the average Singaporean understands of our circumstances."

You may not agree with all his views, but they are certainly worth knowing about.

We started the series of essays with two articles from futurists.

Peter Schwartz, famous for The Art of the Long View, a treatise on scenario planning, and who has been closely involved with Singapore for over three decades, puts Singapore's choices as one between becoming a world city or a regional backwater.

Peter Ho, former head of civil service in Singapore and now senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, thinks Singapore may need to rethink citizenship in some ways.

"One possibility is to rethink how we can encourage more people to contribute to Singapore.

Estonia, a country smaller than Singapore, introduced e-citizenship. It allows non-citizens to perform transactions, both governmental and commercial, that can generate economic activity within Estonia.

While it does not confer the same privileges or command the same emotional connections as traditional citizenship might, the decision to call this e-citizenship, rather than a business visa, implies the hope that this is a connection that is stronger than a commercial one."

And Tom Plate, a veteran Pacific watcher from Los Angeles, has a whimsical - and optimistic - view of Singapore's place in the world in future.

In 2065, he says, Singapore will be at the centre of a new world order where super-diplomats meet to make decisions on global disputes. Instead of big power competition, a Concert of Convergence agreement will get big powers to agree to abide by global rules to settle disputes. And Singapore will be at the centre of such a forum.

A pleasant fantasy, you say? In fact, stranger things have happened to Singapore: its history from a poor nation-state to global city today is a subject more for an utopian fantasy than a rational forecast.

From this series of five articles, it is quite clear what these thinkers consider underlying, tectonic plates on which Singapore's future will sit. Apart from the Big Global issues that every society must contend with - climate change, the speed of technological change and each society's own demographic realities - it is geopolitics that will shape the trajectory of Singapore's future: the interplay of relations among nations in our part of the world.

The big picture view of Singapore's future is generally sombre.

What of specialists' views of Singapore's economy and society? There are 15 more essays to look forward to, in this series each Monday. Do follow us at straitstimes.com/news/opinion.

Singapore's 'Chinese dilemma' as China rises

JUN 1, 2015

How will Singapore fare, as a majority Chinese society in the region, with a China expected to be more assertive in the future?

Wang Gungwu
Chairman of the East Asian Institute and a professor at the National University of Singapore

THE United States talks about re-balancing to Asia; the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) wants a strategic balance between China and America. After 50 years, Singapore has maintained, like Asean, that it does not want to have to choose between America and China in the region.

But what of China? What does China want?

As Singapore celebrates its Jubilee Year and looks towards the future, it has to do so with a hard-headed look at its biggest neighbour China. Singapore needs to have a realistic assessment of China's intentions, America's resolve, and the place of Asean and Singapore in the region, in order to chart its course in the geopolitical future world.

Many Chinese leaders feel that their country has been out of kilter for too long and it is time to put it right. It took more than 100 years to regain unity and security, another 50 to attain a measure of prosperity.

When The Straits Times was first published, in 1845, China had just been defeated by British naval power and forced to open up five ports. The Americans were about to take California, just four years before the Gold Rush turned the Pacific into an Anglo-American lake. China suffered rapid decline and played virtually no role in world affairs. Until 1945, its story was largely one of distress and absence.

Since 1949, China has tried to find a safe position, first between two superpowers, Soviet Russia and the United States, and now in relation to just one, the US in the Asia-Pacific. Does China want to become a superpower? If that is the only way to be prosperous and safe, the answer is yes. That, however, is the wrong question.

If China is prosperous and strong, it will be a superpower in Asia. It is not in the region's interest to try to prevent China from being that. But there is no reason to believe that the Chinese will copy the British and the Americans and try to build a superpower based on naval might to maximise their global dominance. This kind of concept is absent from the Chinese heritage.

Zheng He's voyages were an aberration in China's maritime history. The voyages showed capacity but no ambitions to dominate the seas or build maritime empires. The voyages were stopped when they proved that there were no enemies that threatened China from the seas. The imperial court's decision to destroy the navy was an action consistent with China's heritage, not the voyages before that.

China's history thus suggests that it seeks to be a power founded on economic wealth and technological brilliance - the factors which made its civilisation admired for millennia.

[Yes. And No. Or Rather Maybe. China's history tells us two things. One, what China did, and two, by inference or analysis, why it did what it did. To extrapolate from China's history (and implied motivation) and decide that what it did in the past is what it will do in the future is flaw (if not fallacy) in logic.

It implies that China is blind, deaf, and unable to learn. 

China did what it did when it did (Zheng He's voyages and the aftermath) because at the time it was culturally and perhaps even militarily strong, so strong that there was no question of any challenger or threat to China's supremacy. Which Zheng He's voyages confirmed, then.

But... What if, during Zheng He's voyages, he discovered America or the British and the Dutch colonies, and their naval power? What if Zheng He encountered the British Navy? Would the Chinese government had destroyed their ships then?

Have the Chinese learned nothing from their defeats by the British and the Japanese? From the dominance of the two superpowers? 

So China is content to return being "a power founded on economic wealth and technological brilliance"?

With apologies to Prof Wang, but not bloody likely.]

In recent times, global power shifted to the US in the 1990s as the unchallenged master of the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific oceans. The economic emergence of Asia has moved the world's focus closer to this region.

China recognises these realities and knows that it needs a better balance between its continental commitments and its maritime opportunities. At the same time, it has to re-calculate the costs and benefits of greater participation in a wider range of global affairs. Not least, it needs balanced relationships in its immediate neighbourhood. China's key problem is how to convince its neighbours that it has no intention to move from being assertive to being aggressive. It does not seek to replace American with Chinese dominance. Its national interest lies in creating an environment in which China will not be feared as a superpower but respected for its wealth and creativity, necessary conditions for a modern civilisation.

[And China sees no need to be militarily strong? I do agree that China may simply want to be seen as benign, but it is "socially inept" in trying to present this "self-image". China has to contend with the US as a superpower. If China really wants to be seen as simply an economic powerhouse, why don't they "buy" or "invest" in those disputed islands and maritime features? Instead they muscle in and act unilaterally. Why? Nationalistic pride.]

Smaller neighbours

BALANCING relations with smaller neighbours requires a change of mindset among all concerned.

Early South-east Asian states dealt with imperial China for some 2,000 years. As new nations now, they are witness to a weak China restoring its position as a regional power. They are also learning to act regionally as Asean and to identify common concerns.

The needs and hopes of China and Asean should be dealt with in a package to achieve outcomes that are balanced and sustainable. This requires close attention to details of contested issues in order to guard against any single issue like that of the South China Sea disrupting the whole relationship.

Matters concerning territorial disputes are difficult to resolve. China and Asean have to exercise great skill in avoiding conflict and enabling negotiations to take place without rancour.

China is aware that Asean leaders have continually to devise original and ingenious ways to build consensus and extend influence beyond its shores.

China, in turn, has offered several plans to help the region. Ever since then Premier Zhu Rongji signed the Framework Agreement on China-Asean Economic Cooperation in 2002, there has been special attention given to Asean.

The setting up of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and President Xi Jinping’s two Silk Roads strategy are the most recent manifestation of long-term commitments. They are meant to offset political anxieties by offering clear economic opportunities. The world is watching how China implements the promise behind those policies.

As China’s power and influence increase, questions will be asked about a historical phenomenon peculiar to South-east Asia. The region is home to large numbers of Chinese and people of Chinese descent. These Chinese are well known to have a strong sense of ethnic identity. Singapore – where three-quarters of the population are ethnic Chinese – is a case in point. China will have a keen interest in how the city-state develops and the way it conducts itself in the region.

China-Singapore ties

KEY events in the relationship between China and Singapore are striking. On the day Singapore became a new nation in 1965, China was on the eve of a deadly power struggle between Mao Zedong and his colleagues in its ruling party.

A few weeks later, its sister party, the Parti Kommunis Indonesia (PKI), was destroyed after an abortive coup. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese were killed or shipped to China. That saw the end of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and China for 25 years.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution followed shortly in China, and the turmoil it brought to the Chinese people undermined any illusions anybody still had about learning from China.

There were other changes that could not have been predicted.

Within a decade, the People's Action Party in Singapore became all-powerful, China welcomed US President Richard Nixon, and Mr Lee Kuan Yew went to see Mao Zedong. Events moved quickly after that. Deng Xiaoping came to Singapore and China went further than anyone expected to open itself to the capitalist economies. Singapore's trade with China grew apace. The global Cold War swiftly ended with communism seen by all to have failed.

This was a spur to something South-east Asia had not seen for several decades: A turning towards China. Many entrepreneurs of Chinese origin in the region became interested in China again.

Alert to its neighbours' sensitivities concerning the country's demography, Singapore monitored its business with China with great care. Its leaders established special projects in China to benefit both countries.

At the same time, Singapore remained true to the historic norms that connected it to the economic and security chains of the Western world. Even as it sought to be more active in China, it paid close attention to how the US and European Union responded to China's needs. Nevertheless, China appeared to understand Singapore's constraints and appreciated its many initiatives. After 2000, the pace quickened dramatically as the Chinese economy advanced.

With its Chinese majority, the global city of Singapore is a focus of attention, not least among its Asean fellow members. They are keen to know how its Chinese population will react to the growing confidence of China. What happens in Singapore could shape the response of others of Chinese descent in the region.

One thing, though, is certain: The Chinese in Singapore will not blindly follow China. Indeed, it is remarkable how the Chinese in Singapore have changed since the country's independence.

The divisions between those who look to China and those who do not are sharper. Each generation sees more Singaporeans embracing a Singapore identity that binds more of the local-born together. This Singapore identity is avowedly multi-cultural.

But what is yet uncertain is how much of this Singapore identity will remain recognisably "Chinese" and how China will see it.

But the question of how "Chinese" a society and its values are, is also moot.

When Chinese societies modernise, they are pulled in directions different from what was once thought quintessentially Chinese. Yet, modern Chinese communities may also paradoxically become more alike in lifestyles, career goals and even thought processes, no matter where they live.

Singapore's dilemma

THIS leads to three questions that could put Singapore at the centre of future discussions on this issue. The first is what happens to the majority Chinese population of Singapore in a region with some 30 million South-east Asian citizens of Chinese descent.

If they cohere with other communities as Singaporeans, the region would be relieved while China might be disappointed.

But these Chinese could also be divided in their attitudes towards China as a superpower.

Singapore's neighbours may expect its leaders to force its Chinese population to conform to the pluralism the country stands for, and not tolerate the political and cultural strains that affinity to China might produce.

The second is what happens when local nationalists in another South-east Asian state turn against China because of a bilateral dispute. As long as this does not directly affect Singapore, it may be able to calm both sides through Asean channels.

But should the nationalists in the state attack their own citizens of Chinese descent, Singapore may need to be active in keeping regional relations stable so China will not be pressured, as it was in 1998, by Chinese communities overseas to intercede with Indonesia. Singapore would also have to prepare its own Chinese community to understand what it does.

The third concerns any conflict involving China and a non-Asean power. None would alarm Singapore more than one with the US on whose commitment in the Asia-Pacific region the state has pinned great hopes.

Some segments of Singapore's Chinese population may sympathise with China. If that happens, Singapore would have to make extra efforts to demonstrate its national coherence. At worst, it may have to join with others to determine the rights and the wrongs of the conflict and openly take sides.

In all three, Singapore's capacities will be sorely tested. The consolation is that after 50 years of nation building, it should be more ready to deal with an active China. Asean has done remarkably well in building institutional networks to minimise discord - but there is no alternative to the region seeking a sustainable balance in future superpower relationships.

As for China, it can be a beneficial influence, most of all among those of Chinese descent, when it succeeds in building the modern civilisation it can be proud of.

The writer is a renowned historian of Chinese nationalism and the overseas Chinese. Born in Indonesia, raised in Malaysia and educated in China, Malaya and London, he has taught in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. He is now the chairman of the East Asian Institute and university professor at the National University of Singapore.

Foreign policy is no laughing matter

JUN 8, 2015

As Singapore and the region change, foreign policy will be drawn into domestic political discussions. Singaporeans need to develop common instincts on foreign policy and not be swayed by big powers' attempts to influence views here.

Bilahari Kausikan
For The Straits Times

POLITICS in Singapore is becoming more complex.

Basic assumptions and policies are being challenged, not just by opposition parties but also by civil-society groups and ordinary citizens. There is nothing particularly surprising about this. It is a natural consequence of democratic politics and a more educated electorate and we will just have to learn how to deal with it.

Foreign policy, too, will inevitably be drawn into domestic politics. The first signs are clear but not promising. In 2013, for example, an opposition MP who should have known better than to play with fire asked a question about Singapore's Middle East policies that could have stirred up the feelings of our Malay-Muslim ground against the Government. Fortunately, the Foreign Minister could easily demonstrate that the Government had been consistently even-handed in its relations with Israel and Palestine and that the Arab countries understood our position and had no issue with Singapore.

Such irresponsible attempts to use foreign policy for partisan advantage are dangerous. At the very least, they degrade the nimbleness that small states need to navigate an increasingly fluid and unpredictable environment. But they are not the only challenge.

Tussle for influence

IT IS in the nature of international relations that countries will continually try to influence the policies of other countries, openly through diplomacy, but also through other means.

As Singapore's political space becomes more crowded, with civil-society organisations and other advocacy groups as well as opposition parties vying to shape national policies, multiple opportunities will open up for foreign countries to try to cultivate agents of influence. Those targeted will not always be witting.

And try they certainly will.

The United States and China are groping towards a new modus vivendi between themselves and with other countries in East Asia. These adjustments will take decades to work themselves out.  Competition for influence will hot up.

The challenge for all countries in East Asia is to preserve the maximum range of options and avoid being forced into invidious choices. Both the US and China say the region is big enough for both of them, implying that they do not seek to make other countries choose. Their behaviour, however, already suggests otherwise.

I doubt they will eschew any instrument in their quest for influence.

As the only country in Southeast Asia with a majority ethnic-Chinese-origin population, and with arguably the most cosmopolitan and Westernised elite, Singapore faces unique vulnerabilities.

Chinese leaders and officials repeatedly refer to Singapore as a "Chinese country" and argue that since we "understand" China better, we should "explain" China's policies to the rest of Asean. Of course, by "understand" they really mean "obey", and by "explain" they mean get other Southeast Asian countries to fall in line.

We politely but firmly point out that Singapore is not a "Chinese country".

But China seems incapable of conceiving of an ethnic-Chinese-majority country in any other way. The concept of a pluralistic, multiracial meritocracy is alien to them.

Singapore cannot do China's bidding without losing all credibility with our neighbours and other important partners like the US and Japan. And if we were ever foolish enough to accept China's designation of us as a "Chinese country", what would it mean for our social cohesion?

[The above is is in part a response to Prof Wang's questions at the end of his essay.]

This mode of thought is deeply embedded in China's cultural DNA and will not change. China still has a United Front Work Department under the Communist Party's Central Committee. As China grows and becomes more confident and assertive, this instinct will probably become more pronounced. It would be prudent not to discount the domestic resonance that this could have.

Any attempt to garner influence by one major power will inevitably provoke a counter-reaction from other major powers.

Singapore's brand of democracy already sits uneasily with many in the West and, indeed, with some members of the Singapore elite. In the late 1980s, an American diplomat was expelled for trying, with the support of his State Department superiors, to interfere in our domestic politics by encouraging the formation of a Western-oriented opposition party.

More recently, a European diplomat had to be warned for encouraging some civil-society groups and opposition figures to pursue agendas that he thought were in his country's interests.

Diplomats legitimately meet a variety of groups and individuals - in government, the opposition and in civil society - in order to better understand the countries they are posted to. Our diplomats do so too. But the line between legitimate gathering of information and trying to influence domestic politics is thin. Western diplomacy is infused by a deep belief in the superiority of their values and too often motivated by a secular version of missionary zeal to whip the heathen along the path of righteousness. Some Singaporeans already find it fashionable to ape them; unscrupulous local politicians or "activists" may find it convenient to aid and abet them to advance their own agendas.

Neither the Chinese nor the West are going to change their reflexes. We will just have to be alert and firm in dealing with them. An informed public will be less vulnerable to influence by external parties or their local proxies.

Debate informed by realities

BUT most Singaporeans are not very interested in foreign policy, which they regard as remote from their immediate concerns, and do not pay much attention to international developments. When something catches their attention, it is usually only cursorily and superficially.

It is crucial that domestic debate about foreign policy be conducted within the boundaries defined by clear common understandings of our circumstances, chief of which is the inherent irrelevance of small states in the international system and hence the constant imperative of creating relevance for ourselves by pursuing extraordinary excellence.

Countries with long histories instinctively share certain assumptions that bridge partisan divisions. But we are only 50 years old; a mere blink of an eyelid in a country's history.

And even Singaporeans who profess an interest in foreign policy can be breathtakingly naive about international relations and astonishingly ignorant about our own history and the realities confronting a small, multiracial country in South-east Asia.

More than a decade ago, I was infuriated when a journalist - a person whose profession was presumably to inform and educate Singaporeans - told me that there was no "national interest". Please note that this was not disagreement over what constituted our national interest in a particular case - it is quite in order to debate this - but over whether there was such a thing at all.

More recently, I was flabbergasted when a Singaporean PhD candidate in political science in a local university asked me why Singapore could not pursue a foreign policy like that of Denmark or Switzerland.

It was quite a struggle to remain calm and reply blandly that it is because Singapore is in South-east Asia, not Europe, and the circumstances of these regions are obviously different.

If a PhD candidate could ask such a silly question, I shudder to think what the average Singaporean understands of our circumstances. It does not help that the political science department in at least one of our universities is staffed mainly by foreigners whose understanding of our region and circumstances is theoretical if not downright ideological.

Knowledge of our history should not be only a matter for specialists. The puerile controversy over the 1963 Operation Coldstore and whether those detained were part of the communist United Front exposed the extent to which the public lacuna of understanding allows pernicious views to gain currency. Historical narratives must, of course, be constantly revised. But critical historical thinking is not just a matter of braying black when the established view is white.

I can understand academics wanting to enhance their reputations by coming up with novel interpretations. But the recent debate over the detentions was more than a mere academic exercise: For some, it was a politically motivated, or at least politically hijacked, attempt to cast doubt on the Government's overall credibility by undermining the Government's narrative on one particular episode in our history.

Young Singaporeans who have known only a prosperous Singapore do not understand how unnatural a place this is; they are sceptical when we speak of our vulnerabilities, regarding it as propaganda or scare tactics designed to keep the Government in power.

In the long run, a successful foreign policy must rest on a stable domestic foundation of common understandings of what is and is not possible for a small country in South-east Asia. This does not yet exist. We have not done a good job of national education. What now passes as national education is ritualised, arousing as much cynicism as understanding. And we are paying the price for de-emphasising history in our national curriculum.

Some steps are now being taken to rectify the situation, including in the civil service which, the foreign service aside, generally has yet to develop sophisticated foreign-policy instincts.

But these steps are still tentative, sometimes executed in a clumsy manner that does more harm than good, and, in any case, will take many years to have an impact on the public's understanding. Social media is a new complication. It conflates and confuses opinion with expertise, and information with entertainment.

Extreme as well as sensible and balanced views can be widely disseminated on social media; indeed, the former probably more widely than the latter because netizens generally find such views more amusing. But foreign policy is no laughing matter.

Or at least it ought not to be, if we are to survive as a sovereign state to celebrate SG100.

The writer, a former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, is now ambassador-at-large. He has also held various positions in the ministry and abroad, including as Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations in New York and ambassador to the Russian Federation.

World city or regional backwater?

MAY 12, 2015

Peter Schwartz
For The Straits Times

Singapore of 2065 could be a world capital of gleaming towers, creative talent, power, influence and wealth; the most important centre of a region of peace and prosperity; and an inspiration to those who dream of what it takes to build a better society.

Or by 2065, Singapore could be mostly faded glory, not a bad place to be, but one with a better history than future.

There is a third possibility of a slowly growing developed city - but that would still lead the city-state into a slow but inexorable decline: Think of a graceful old age with declining prospects.

Where is Singapore headed? What are the trends that will shape its possibilities? What should Singapore aspire to in the next 50 years?

As a futurist with a three- decade-long association with Singapore, I have had the rare privilege of periodic conversations with its first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, sharing perspectives on where the world is headed. Singapore's success owes greatly to his leadership, making him one of the greatest political and economic leaders of the 20th century. He died in March, and the challenge will be sustaining his legacy. I have also served on various agencies in the city-state.

I would say Singapore has been moving in the right direction, keeping itself open to talent and driving innovation. The question is whether that can be sustained.

At independence in 1965, security, stability and prosperity were the main aspirations. For the future, Singapore needs to have dreams of its future that can keep the talent coming. For those dreams to be real, they have to gel with the driving forces and the ethos that shape the times today, as they did during independence.

So what will determine if Singapore becomes a world city or declines into a backwater? What forces shape its future? Some are beyond Singapore's control, like the global balance of power and regional stability. Others - like the quality of governance or the ability to exploit new knowledge - are within Singapore's control.

Long-term forces

THERE are a few long-term, predictable forces. The population cannot grow by very much. If the country builds upwards, or downwards or even a bit outwards, it might add another million or so, mostly immigrants and mostly the young. Today's population will inevitably be older. Even if many remain healthy, vigorous and stay in the workforce much longer, many will be so old by mid-century that dependency will increase substantially. By 2065, Singapore has to be ready to manage a very old, infirm population and invite in young immigrants to help support that ageing population.

The need to adapt to climate change is also predictable. The weather will be more variable and the seas will be rising. As part of my ongoing work with the Centre for Strategic Futures in the Prime Minister's Office, I had the opportunity to study the impact of climate change on Singapore in some depth. The building of future infrastructure will need to take into account the rise in sea level, storm surges and potential for torrential rains. Planning for a system of dikes may be needed.

As for energy, I expect the fossil fuel era will be winding down by 2065, driven by the pressures of a rapidly changing climate. Unless there is a major breakthrough in renewable energy, Singapore will be an all-electric country, including electric cars, generated by nuclear power. The reactor may be offshore, underground or in a neighbouring country. Nuclear may be the only way to generate sufficient power for a modern wealthy economy without producing too much carbon dioxide.

Uncertainties ahead

WHILE a few trends are predictable, more are uncertain. The first question is whether the economy will be able to sustain economic growth and whether that growth will be fairly equitable.

Another 50 years of even slow growth will leave Singapore incredibly rich. But creating vast wealth in the hands of only a few will not be regarded as success.

For growth to be equitable, new industries need to take off that will employ large numbers of people in high-value jobs. People need to be trained to fill those jobs. There is no guarantee of success on both counts.

The old industrial economy will inevitably give way to a new economy based on ideas and skills in high technology, healthcare, finance and tourism. Singapore is well-placed to take advantage of all four arenas, is already investing appropriately in them and has a good chance to succeed.

The most important uncertainty within the control of Singapore is the continued success of the system of politics and governance. It delivered on its vision in the first half century after the nation was born. Can it continue to for the next 50 years?

Success is the worst enemy of change. Why bother to change when things are working? But that is when you have the most manoeuvring room and resources to act. How does Singapore not become a stultifying bureaucracy wedded to the status quo? Will its bureaucracy make room for the young and ambitious? How can its government move and adapt at the pace of the modern world? Will initiatives like the Smart Nation make Singapore a continuing model for future governance? Will the high performance and near complete absence of corruption sustain the legitimacy of the system with the people of Singapore?

The answers to all these questions are not predetermined and will be shaped by the choices people make, the quality of leadership and events beyond their control.

The forces that are most vital and out of Singapore's control are the politics and economics of the region. Most regional trends in recent years have been fairly positive economically and politically. Will its neighbours and partners continue to improve governments and economies, or will they devolve into incompetence, corruption, poverty and conflict - that is, take a big step into the past?

The former creates regional conditions conducive for Singa- pore's success. The latter scenario will make it very difficult for Singapore to succeed. Walling itself off from a chaotic region will not be regarded as success. Singapore will be sailing against the wind.

In the worst-case scenario, major conflict involving big countries like China, Japan, India or the United States greatly damage the prospects of the region and Singapore. On the other hand, increasing integration and coherence can feed on themselves and accelerate growth and prosperity.

The final uncertainty is what role Singapore will play in the world. It is already an example of successful development to many other cities. But if it stagnates and is trapped by its own success, its role as an exemplar will also fade.

If it uses the platform of its success to aspire to an even more important role, then it will remain a shining example of how to build on success, and continue to attract the talent it needs to excel.

5 ways to be a world capital

BY 2065, 80 per cent of the world's people will live in cities.

Cities are where ideas are born, where growth happens and where problems are addressed. Among the many huge cities on the planet, a few increasingly stand out as important capitals, even if they are not the capital cities of their nations. They include New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paulo. They are where the brightest talent goes and where the future is being created.

In this competition among cities, a land-scarce city-state with no hinterland and no mineral resources will not be at a disadvantage. Skyscraper to skyscraper, densely packed Singapore can compete with the best among cities. It can aspire to be among those cities that are truly world capitals. How?

Singapore can aspire to some combination of five targets for which it is well positioned. The measure of success is not how many jobs are created directly. Rather it is about attracting the talent needed to create an economic ecosystem of constantly evolving new sectors.

The best example of this today is San Francisco Bay Area where I live. Talent flows here and draws even more talent, driving one of the world's highest growth rates. That is what Singapore is already becoming and what it needs to keep building on.

A globally ageing population will want access to the best healthcare on the planet. Singapore is already a healthcare hub for the region and a rapidly growing centre for related research and development, and manufacturing. There is every reason to invest more and create the conditions to become the world's healthcare leader.

Singapore has also made substantial investments to expand its education and research capabilities. In a world economy driven by talent and new ideas, Singapore has the potential to be another Silicon Valley, generating both basic research and economically valuable ideas that create new wealth and status. It is not hard to imagine the day when Singaporeans - or people working out of Singapore - win Nobel Prizes and create the next Intel or Google.

Many of the world's great cities are home to global institutions like the United Nations or World Health Organisation. The world needs an Environmental Protection Agency. Singapore could be its home. Many environmental issues do not respect national boundaries - from climate change to plastic waste in the oceans.

When international telegraph took off, the International Telecommunication Union based in Geneva was created by nations to regulate terms of access to things like spectrum and satellite parking spaces. Evolving needs lead to new institutions. Singapore is a minimal polluter, technically sophisticated, adept at market-based regulation and completely honest. It could take the lead in creating this Environmental Protection Agency and giving it a home.

Due to its location at the equator, Singapore is an ideal location to launch rockets into earth orbit, from an orbital physics point of view. By 2065, the cost to orbit will have fallen drastically and more economic and tourist activities will rely on orbital launch. Singapore could be the planet's great spaceport, even attracting tourists just to see the launches.

Finally, Singapore has one of the best military, intelligence, police organisations in the region. From the shores of East Africa to the South China Sea to the Sea of Japan, security issues will continue to be critical to regional stability. Singapore's small size gives it the advantage of being considered unthreatening. It is recognised as being especially competent.

Singapore could lead new regional security efforts to deal with crime and interstate tensions. The worst thing that could happen to it would be a destructive regional war or a dramatic rise in crime. Its leadership in security matters could help mitigate those risks.

When you put all these forces together, it is possible to describe two very different future possibilities for Singapore, as it deals with an older population and the need for immigration, as well as adapting to climate change.

If Singapore fails to make it as the new industries' economic powerhouse, if its Government becomes sclerotic and corrupt, if the region is chaotic and violent and if it aspires to maintain only the status quo - then by 2065, Singapore will be an irrelevant backwater from which talent leaves, a nation in decline, more or less gracefully.

If, on the other hand, it makes a successful transition to the idea economy; if the vitality, competence and legitimacy of its Government are sustained; if the region is stable and prosperous, then it will be a true world capital, the city of the future into 2065.

The choice is in the hands of the Singaporean people.

Wanted: A new Pioneer Generation bold enough to change mindsets

MAY 18, 2015

An ageing population. Climate change raising sea levels. Always-on technology. In this brave new world, Singapore needs a generation bold enough to change mindsets.

Peter Ho
For The Straits Times

The passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March has generated a tremendous amount of reflection on how he transformed Singapore from a Third World backwater into a First World city-state within less than two generations.

But as Mr Lee himself said: "The past was not pre-ordained. Nor is the future. There are as many unexpected problems ahead, as there were in the past."

We cannot predict the future. Anyone would be hard-pressed to know how things will turn out in 10 to 20 years' time. What more to forecast the world 50 years into the future?

The best we can do is to identify the key trends that could have significant impact on the world and on society. By being aware of trends, including emerging ones, we can position ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise and to confront challenges when they occur.

There are three big trends that I feel will have a decisive impact on Singapore, and the world, in the next 50 years. Their long-term trajectories cannot be forecast with any certainty, but they are beginning to trace paths that suggest their impact will be significant and game-changing.


The first trend is demographics. There are many angles, but one of the most critical is ageing. Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing societies in the world, with nearly 100,000 people turning 65 in the past four years alone. Over the next 15 years, the number of elderly people will double to almost a million.

But we will not be alone. Within that same timeframe, one in four people above age 65 will be living in China, compared with one in five today. The World Health Organisation expects the above-65 share of the global population to double from 11 per cent to 22 per cent by 2050.

As populations around the world age, and falling fertility rates shrink the youth bulge, governments face the dilemma of looking after a greying population on the one hand, and securing the talent and manpower to generate economic growth on the other.

In 50 years' time, the issue, if it ever was, will neither be about foreign talent displacing the local workforce, nor about how large a population Singapore can accommodate. Instead, the real challenge will be how to offset the impact of a greying population.

Bold thinking will be required.

One possibility is to rethink how we can encourage more people to contribute to Singapore.

Estonia, a country smaller than Singapore, introduced an e-residency scheme that is being described as "e-citizenship". It allows non-citizens residing elsewhere to perform transactions, both governmental and commercial, that can generate economic activity within Estonia.

While it does not confer the same privileges or command the same emotional connections as traditional citizenship might, the decision to call this e-citizenship, rather than a business visa, implies the hope that this is a connection that is stronger than a commercial one.

As the world ages, demand will rise for better solutions to maintain quality of life for the elderly worldwide. Singapore is actively developing a comprehensive ageing masterplan that addresses not just healthcare and retirement adequacy, but also employment, volunteerism, urban infrastructure and scientific research.

Singapore wants to transform longevity from a problem into a powerful resource. With an entrepreneurial mindset, we can convert a demographic "wicked problem" into a new economic opportunity. Solutions developed in Singapore to give the elderly healthy, meaningful and productive lives can be turned into exports to other parts of the world also dealing with the challenge of ageing.

[Singapore Nursing Home/Hospice is the next export after Singapore Math?]

But we will have to treat this not as a problem of the future, but one we must grapple with today.

Another aspect of the demographic trend is urbanisation. By 2012, 50 per cent of the world's population were living in cities. The pace of global urbanisation continues unabated. The United Nations' 2014 Report on World Urbanisation Trends reveals the percentage of global population living in cities will hit 66 per cent in 2050. Ninety per cent of the rise will be concentrated in the developing countries of Asia and Africa.

Singapore is arguably one of the few cities in the modern world that has succeeded in creating a high-quality urban environment despite being one of the most densely populated. But significant challenges lie ahead. An ageing population, climate change, and inevitable changes in the economic structure due to competition and technological shifts will stress the solutions to urbanisation that Singapore has so successfully employed in the past.

But Singapore is no longer a tabula rasa, or a "blank slate", on which we have the luxury to build a new city and brand-new infrastructure. Instead, Singapore will have to renovate where it should, upgrade where it must, and experiment where it can.

We will have to try out new technologies and societal arrangements. Every new technology that is deployed, even in a pilot programme, will need societal adjustment and then acceptance.

As a nation, we must be willing to set aside tried-and-tested solutions that worked in the past, to experiment with new ones that have no precedent. We will have to embark on expeditions of discovery together, once again, as we did after independence, to find out for ourselves what works and what does not work.

Once again, Singaporeans will be called upon to sacrifice short-term convenience of the comfort of the status quo, accepting some disruptions to their daily lives that pilots, trials and experiments entail. But carefully managed, most will succeed, and then the future of Singapore as a sustainable and liveable city will be bright.

Climate change

THE second trend is climate change. Climate change is no longer an abstract debate among scientists, economists and policymakers. For Singapore, like many other countries around the world, it has become real. More intense rainfall over Singapore in recent years is now understood to be caused by rising temperatures. Combined with urbanisation, it has led to flooding, a phenomenon absent for decades because of a well-designed drainage system.

But in the longer term, the challenge is not flooding, but rising sea levels. As an island, parts of Singapore will be at risk when sea levels rise. Yet, where there is risk, there is also opportunity.

If we have to build dykes to prevent rising waters from flooding parts of Singapore, why not think synergistically and "whole-of-nation", and incorporate other functions into these dykes at incremental cost, like roads, water storage, and common service tunnels?

Post-industrial technologies

THE third trend is post-industrial technologies. By this I mean technologies that we commonly associate with computerisation and information technology. These technologies are changing at a pace governed by Moore's Law, an empirical law stating that computing power doubles every two years.

In the last few years, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, big data and its hand-maiden, data analytics, and the Internet of Things, are taking off.

AI, exemplified by IBM's Watson and its cognitive computing capability, is showing promise that did not even exist a few years ago. Advances in robotics mean that jobs that could be done only by human workers will in the near future be assigned to robots.

Earlier this year, Australian researchers announced the creation of the world's first 3D-printed jet engine. The Internet of Things is quickly becoming the Web of Everything, generating enormous amounts of data - big data - from an ever-increasing network of interconnected sensors that also interface with and impact the real world. Combined with data analytics, this will lead to the next wave of productivity breakthroughs through automation.

The rise of cyber-physical systems and the physical manifestations of digital technologies such as autonomous vehicles will be the backbone in the future of Singapore, the Smart Nation.

All these technologies are maturing rapidly. They will converge and entangle with one another in the not-too-distant future to produce new technologies that we cannot even imagine today. Nations and governments prepared for this new wave of technologies will have the competitive advantage. Singapore can ride the wave.

Indeed, Singapore has been preparing for this moment for many years. The effort, beginning with the national computerisation programme, has seen successive leaps forward. A vibrant research and development community, coupled with a strongly emerging culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, will position Singapore to exploit these post-industrial technologies.

But it is also inevitable that these technologies will have a disruptive impact. They will create new jobs, but make other jobs redundant. People will have to acquire new skills and new knowledge. Lifelong learning in such a world of fast-changing technologies will not be rhetoric but a reality.

In a 24/7 online world, constantly surrounded by innumerable sensors and smart objects, all connected to the Internet - the Internet of Things - traditional notions of privacy will be challenged. To fully reap the benefits of these technologies, it is not enough that there are ambitious plans and policies. A mature conversation is needed on the impact of technology on issues like privacy, security and jobs.

But there can be no absolutes. Change is happening fast. It is therefore imperative that this conversation aims to find a middle and pragmatic ground on technology that addresses the concerns of society, and meets the needs of the economy.

The risks

THESE trends will generate many risks and dangers, even as they produce opportunities. There is one risk that Singapore should be alert to, that I wish to highlight.

Singapore enters its next half-century in an environment where there are centrifugal forces at play. The larger source countries of its major constituent ethnic groups are rapidly catching up with the developed world.

Fifty years into the future, Singaporeans might be attracted to the siren call and go off to be foreign workers and "new citizens" in other countries. On the other hand, Singaporeans could stake out their place in this new - and exciting world - and take on the competition, as their forefathers did 50 years before.

Too much navel-gazing and fretting over Singapore's "constraints" could cause us to throw away the many advantages that we do possess, and miss out on the opportunities that will lie ahead.

The legacy of Mr Lee Kuan Yew lies in the strong institutions of government that he built, a globally competitive private sector, and a well-educated population. While the challenges of the next 50 years are real, we need a new generation of pioneers to have faith in Singapore, and stand up to be counted on by their country.

The future remains for the making. Each generation can bring new energy and new dreams.

My belief is that Singapore will continue to be a welcoming place for these dreams, and a country where these hopes become our new realities.

The writer is senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, set up by the Public Service Division to develop public-sector capabilities for future strategic challenges.

A new world order, thanks to Lee Kuan Yew

MAY 25, 2015

What might the geopolitical landscape look like in 2065? A veteran Pacific watcher gazes into the crystal ball with a touch of whimsy.

Tom Plate
For The Straits Times

THE following may prove difficult to believe, but - trust me - a great deal will probably happen over the next 50 years. So be a little patient, please.

Let us start by imagining... a summer day in 2065.

A standard morning with the usual inescapable equatorial humidity. Two unspectacularly dressed diplomats trudge out of a government building as if the weight of the world were on their shoulders.

As they are career officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they appear rumpled and exhausted. Which they have every right to be: they are not just diplomats but Special Plenipotentiaries (SPs). They are empowered to bring to final effect rulings on difficult disputes, even involving the toughest territorial issues in the South China Sea, and they are dispatched not by the Singapore Government as national representatives but by the Global Appeals Court (GAC) which, after the second nuclear attack in 2045, rose from the decay of the limping World Court as a shining achievement of the historic Concert of Convergence of 2025.

But more on that later.

While their closing powers are immense, SPs have not been at peace for weeks. Each case has to be handled just right so that all parties walk away from the quarrel with a sense of justice not denied.

Of course, these super-closers are well rewarded for one of the hardest positions on the planet: Following the internationally admired Singapore system of compensating government workers competitively, the SP job description is nothing less than to prevent war by guiding GAC rulings into implementation.

Within the Asian Union, only a dozen super-diplomats from 11 countries have SP power. Singapore, where the Concert of Convergence was birthed in 2025, has the unique honour of fielding two.

And so the super-diplomats hop onto one of the island's solar-electric mass-transit lines that crisscross the city-state 20 hours daily and fast-tram it to the airport.

Their destination is Shanghai, Asia headquarters of the World Diplomacy Organisation (WDO). This is the successful successor to the unsuccessful United Nations, planted on an island landfill off China's largest city that is designated as international territory.

Instead of one such institution - as with the old UN in New York - there are regional WDOs. It was always silly to imagine that world government could be operated as one central unit.

The five-pronged successor to the bloated UN follows logically the principle of subsidiary in contemporary geopolitics.

Plenary WDO sessions are conducted in the amazing new Magnet technology, the 3D stereo successor to Skype; only ceremonial or annual global sessions actually take place in Shanghai. With exceptional modern telecommunications, there is no need for everyone to be packed together. Besides, ego crowding creates problems.

In Shanghai, the two diplomats will explain the GAC's ruling on the touchy Vietnam-Philippines GMO (genetically modified organism) tuna debacle to the quarrelling parties, answer questions and lay down the (international) law.

It is highly probable that when they are finished, the two parties will accept the judgment and walk away in a dignified fashion. There is always a chance they won't, of course, but the planetary consensus is deep and pervasive: It is dead tired of national squabbles and knows it faces much bigger existential challenges than divisive regional tantrums.

By 2065, it seems, Political Planet Earth has finally got its reality grip and abandoned the old Westphalian Hobbesian jungle.

It's complicated

LET me explain all this some more because, as you might imagine, it's complicated.

With all that has been pushing planet earth technologically and climatologically, it was preposterous to imagine that little would change geopolitically - not to mention (in a manner of speaking) within our collective global consciousness.

The big political change came to the world in a most unexpected way, however.

It started in 2025, a decade after the death of Singapore's modern founder Lee Kuan Yew, on the occasion of an "international policy conference" held at his namesake public-policy school, and organised in remembrance of his death.

The 10th anniversary event was to reflect on - while celebrating - the known wisdoms and credited innovations of the founding prime minister, whether domestic or international. The banner title - The Lee Kuan Yew New World Order Conference - was an obvious one, potentially fatuous (let's face it), but what was stunning was that it mushroomed into a true world summit, if Asia-heavy (which made sense, because such was the tilt of the geopolitical world by 2025).

Amazingly, every secular eminence who'd been invited showed up - foreign ministers, presidents, heads of distinguished universities and think-tanks.

What had happened was that during the decade after his death, the legend of LKY had not diminished but had swelled (in truth, some felt the relentless deified swelling had gone over the top).

It was as if everyone was nearing the end of their ropes and looking for something seriously different. What with the relentless, overwhelming climate problem and the frightening currency storms and the constant bickering in the South China Sea and the dramatic collapse of the UN - the consensus was that it was high time for big change, and the time and place for that change was now… here… in Singapore.

And why not?

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy offered the perfect platform. What it lacked in architectural grandiosity, it more than made up with its aura of substantive mission and intellectual rigour. Since its founding in 2004, it had worked diligently to establish a rigorous regional standard for policy studies.

It was soon a beacon of intellect bobbing atop neighbouring oceans of policy mediocrity.

By 2025, the reputation of the school named after Singapore's longest-serving prime minister was firmly established - ranked on the level of even Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

The first sense that something special was in the air came from the school's outgoing dean, a recognised global thought leader, offering his farewell speech after 21 years at the helm.

Titled Convergence Or Catastrophe, it dramatically set the stage for the retiring Singapore Prime Minister: His moving speech was both elegiac and pragmatic, evoking his father's belief in the almost religious vocation of public service.

"It deeply affects people's lives," the Prime Minister recalled his father saying over and over to him when he was growing up. Following right on the logic of the dean's speech, the PM called for a new world order - "the Concert of Convergence".

A secret conversation

A SIDE seminar had unpredictably added an odd but useful element. The seminar leader was an ageing journalist who had interviewed Lee Kuan Yew a number of times and had written a book on him.

What the book purposely omitted - claimed the journalist - was a secret conversation LKY insisted be held back until well after his death because of its idealistic content. As it turned out, in his last years Lee had committed secret world-reorganisation notes to a plain school notebook kept in a locked drawer at his desk at the Istana office.

The journalist told the seminar attendees that his sweeping denunciation of the current "world disorder" was mesmerising both in its feral ferocity and studious detail.

Nobody quite believed the journalist's account of the secret notebook; he was an American, after all - and thus subject to narrative flights of fancy, not to mention psychopharmacological hallucination. And, of course, no one ever did find the alleged secret notebook. But the very thought pushed the conference to act as if the creation of a new order was the legendary leader's last dying wish.

And so the attendees, working closely with the LKY School experts, hammered out the final blueprint for the Global Appeals Court, which would issue binding decisions on geopolitical disputes. The rulings would be executed by diplomats whose distinguished careers marked them for international service in the WDO. (They had gained appointment through a series of rigorous examinations - Singapore-style).

Their work in implementing GAC decisions would be backed up - ultimately - by the joint authority of China and the United States; the combined WDO Joint Chiefs actually worked together as a unitary force, with China basically focusing on the expanse of Asia, and the US everywhere else except Europe, with its revitalised European Union, and Africa, with its surprisingly high-performing African Union. (Close cooperation between China and the US was bottom-line required for any new order - inconceivable without it.)

The administration of the Concert of Convergence came from a global system of meritocratic appointments (nations competed with brains instead of brawn), with continuing educational training and retraining for the SP corps (at the LKY School and the other obvious places around the globe), and disciplined leadership.

Notwithstanding the gradual evolution of a vigorous two-party system, Singapore maintained leadership of the Concert of Convergence with annual policy conventions.

In the fashion of the city-states of Florence, Milan and Venice of the 14th and 15th centuries, Singapore became an exemplar that helped shape the geopolitical world.

That, it seemed, was the finest legacy a legendary founding prime minister could have wanted to leave behind, secret notebook or not.

Professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and observer of Pacific affairs. From 1989-1995, he was editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. He went on to write a syndicated column on the United States' relations with Asia and the Pacific. He is now distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has written over 10 books, including a series of interviews with Asian leaders which include Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew.

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