What I'm looking to, 50 years from now

I sometimes find the rah-rah talk about SG50 a little overwrought.

From jubilee baby gifts to a Celebration Fund, it feels as if there's something trumpeting the nation's upcoming 50th birthday every other week.

We haven't even had our 49th birthday bash, so aren't we being a little too kancheong (Cantonese for hasty)?

But perhaps this enthusiasm is not misplaced. A politician recently remarked, cryptically, that everyone will die - it's just a matter of how long death can be delayed.

He could have meant people in general, or his party's political health. But he could have just as well meant Singapore.

Last week, academic Kishore Mahbubani underscored this point in an essay for this paper.

We've had an extraordinarily successful first 50 years, he wrote. "The chances of us being equally successful over the next 50 years are practically zero."

Somewhat fatalistically, I wonder if the situation might be even more dire. What if we can't even hit some modicum of triumph?

Professor Mahbubani said we have lost our first-mover advantage. And thanks to social studies lessons, many of us are aware of our neighbours' rich hinterland and abundant natural resources, whereas Singapore's one asset is its human talent.

But declining productivity rates, no thanks to a heavy reliance on labour inputs like foreign manpower, are chipping away at our strength. We no longer dominate in airports and airlines. What else will our neighbours beat us at?

If we want to be somewhat successful 50, 100 years from now, then we must first move away from an accolades-driven pursuit. Not doing so only sets us up for disappointment.

Instead of looking to the world for recognition, we - ordinary citizens, not just policymakers - should start defining what sort of attributes would make this a country we are proud of.

Our robust economy and low crime rate are things we should be grateful for. But it's hard to feel some tingling in our spirit when we talk about growth and safety. Those aren't sexy topics.

I'd like to suggest two characteristics Singaporeans can work on to more-than-survive the next 50 years.

First is awareness, especially of our neighbours and competition.

Earlier this year, Nominated MP Tan Su Shan warned in Parliament and on TV that white-collar workers here could be outpaced by their neighbours.

To combat that, she said we would need a mindset and cultural change, "including one where our workers are more open to change and innovation, potential criticism and even failure".

Before that, I think we have to realise that some moves, like the recently announced job bank that requires companies to advertise jobs to locals first, are a stop-gap measure.

There is no running away from the fact that our neighbours are hungrier. Once we acknowledge that, we can become ostriches, put our heads into the sand and hope the problem goes away. Or we can buck up and relish the challenge. It helps that the Government is championing constant skills training and upgrading.

The world is already entering a tech-centric phase. For those of us who have missed the coding boat - myself included - it is easy to feel intimidated. But, sink or swim, right?

The second trait is openness.

The Media Development Authority's recent ban of an issue of the comic book Archie on the grounds of homosexual content is the opposite of that.

I am not sure how long restricted access as a blunt tool to preserve "moral codes" can last in an increasingly globalised world.

If anything, it reflects a lack of faith in its citizenry to discuss issues sensibly.

Openness also works the other way. Too often, certain members in both conservative and liberal groups dismiss the views of the other. Everything is cast in black and white, with no room for a middle ground.

Those are my wishes. Fifty years from now, we may not be No. 1 at anything. We may even be a little bit messier and more raucous. But if we're imbued with a new zest for competition and debate, we could perhaps be genuinely excited about SG100.


This article was first published on July 20, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.