SINGAPORE - Hierarchies are being eroded and authority questioned as the world goes through a momentous transition. As a result, relationships are changing in a profound way, leading to a crisis of institutions, said Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo.
But cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, being smaller, are well placed to make the changes needed to survive in the new world order that will emerge, he said yesterday.
He made these observations in a rare public speech at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary with a conference.
Casting a philosophical eye on recent developments, he was his vintage self as he assessed the world to be in a period of epic change, brought on by the digital revolution. He also spoke about Hong Kong, where he is based as chairman of Kerry Logistics, and Singapore, though he was careful not to make pronouncements about policies.
Of the global changes being wrought, he said: "What we are seeing is still very much a destructive phase of old structures being brought down. New ones are being built up... on different assumptions (and) foundations, but it will be some time before those new forms become dominant."
Likening the transition to when human society shifted from a nomadic existence to a settled agricultural society, he warned that it would pose challenges to people and institutions. "The more pyramidal, elaborate and byzantine institutions are... the less the public affection. Because of their distance, they are oftentimes seen as self-serving and disconnected, absorbed in their own world," he said.
Sparking this change is social media that has kept people informed but also distorts, and is sometimes deliberately manipulated. Access to information because of the digital revolution has also played a part in causing the corrosion of hierarchies, as those at the top find their authority and knowledge questioned and challenged by those below across all manner of relationships and institutions.
So, whether one is a teacher, doctor, parent or preacher, one has to be prepared to adjust to this new reality, he said. One consequence must be that leaders can no longer dictate from on high, and learning must be among one another, not top down.
Citing his own experience, he said he has been learning from colleagues about all aspects of the logistics business, which he went into after leaving politics in 2011.
He noted, though, that bigger institutions with longer histories may find it harder to "dismantle... core architecture to adjust to the new reality". Changing would be easier for the smaller players, such as cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have less inertia. Singapore, he added, should always aim to be a "free city".
"In mediaeval times, the future was first to be discerned in the free cities. So the future, with all its uncertainties, is perhaps easiest to be discerned in the free cities of today, and Singapore should aspire to be one such free city."
Asked how the public service can adapt to this change during a dialogue later, he said it involves "inserting yourself into the community, into the problem".
"You cannot be bureaucratic sitting all high, reading papers, doing statistical analysis and prescribing solutions... It's very important those who are in charge do not lead and live separate lives. And to the extent that we can be one community, we will be a strong society," he said, adding that Singapore's civil service is probably the best in the world.