SG50: Scaling the Mount Everest of aspirations

SG50: Scaling the Mount Everest of aspirations
Singaporeans today demand more for themselves in terms of economic affluence and of themselves at the social and ethical levels.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

As we approach our 50th National Day and as a general election looms, Singaporeans are thinking deeply about the future of our nation.

At different meetings organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), foreign and Singaporean speakers have discussed the geopolitical, economic, ecological and governance trends that might shape that future.

One thing no one knows is how Singaporeans, collectively and in our respective fields, will respond to these.

What trends will shape our future?


On geopolitics, how will we navigate a more complex geopolitical order as East Asian countries and the United States deal with an assertive, rising China?

China itself is grappling with its dual identity - as described by Peking University International Studies professor Jia Qingguo - as both a developing and a developed country; one that is poor yet rich, weak yet strong.

It also needs to be seen as a responsible global actor on many fronts.

The United States' foreign policy orientation can shift too, with the changes in the internal political balance between the Democrats and the Republicans.

While it may be decades before a new equilibrium settles, Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan said this was not disadvantageous to Singapore if developments can be "analysed clinically" using the correct reference points when they are interpreted, not distorted by non-state actors, partisan politics or, worse, for these to become entry points for foreign influence. This way, Singapore can respond nimbly and in a nuanced fashion going forward.

This can only mean that the Singaporean public, civil society and civil servants should seek to understand the impulses, expressions and motivations guiding these powers and take care to ensure that the actions they undertake do not undermine the strategic interest of our country. In geopolitics, the appeal has been made for having one shared masterplan and intelligence map to shape our response.

On the second set of trends in economic development, the position on the role of multiple, non-government actors is a less ambivalent one.

While the recent narrative about technological and business trends tends to be grim - the robots are taking our jobs - techno-optimists Byron Auguste, managing director of American civic enterprise Opportunity@Work, and Mr Ravi Menon, managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, argued instead that robotics and all manner of computing technologies can be harnessed to unlock human potential and bring fresh economic opportunities.

How much more important will it be for a labour-constrained landscape like Singapore to grasp these with both hands.

Gone will be the mundane, repetitive, muscle-dependent tasks. Here to excite will be jobs that give expression to our creative power.

The key worry is for Singaporeans who do not have the skills for those new jobs and industries yet.

This is where closer collaboration between companies that can define what skills and competencies they need and agencies that can mobilise untapped or underemployed workers through "just-in-time" skills development and education is needed. With certainty that there is a market for them, workers will take the training on offer.

The nimbleness of the market and deeper connections between change agents will be where magic happens.

On the third set of trends of how climate change and a carbon-constrained world will affect us, the power of individual actions adding to more than the sum becomes the most obvious.

While our environment ministry reminds us that the choices of every household, factory and office matter, it is also the easiest aspect of life for us to say, surely my own actions will not make a jot of difference to whether we become inundated by the rising sea level at the end of this century.

However, can we afford to be free riders in the world ecological system or will being responsible for our own actions set an example and give us the moral authority to invite others to play their part in dealing with global warming?

Investing in intelligent urban design, energy-efficient infrastructure and lifestyle in all our personal and collective decisions is the strategic choice.

How, though, can this national orientation be developed with rising political pluralism and the mass penetration of new and social media?

This fourth trend in governance suggests that the fragmentation of the national community and a receding sense of shared interest are inevitable outcomes.

Each of us can form our own community of opinion and even mobilise for social action, as amply demonstrated in the 2013 protests against the Government's Population White Paper, and the current and vitally important discussion of elder abuse spurred by a citizen's video.

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