SINGAPORE (Aug 26): The adage that change is the only constant is now truer than ever. In an increasingly unpredictable world buffeted by populism, the US’ turning inwards, China’s exercising its considerable clout, and shorter business cycles, the only certainty for Singapore is that there will be change.
The city state can no longer bet on one core industry and train the workforce for it. In fact, it is hard pressed to say what the next big thing is, which will last for at least a decade.
Adrian W J Kuah, director of the Futures Office, National University of Singapore, writes about this in “How to educate for an uncertain world”. “The challenge for Singapore is that, while in the past we had a good sense of what new sectors to move on to next, we are not sure what the next ‘something else’ is. That makes our next bet, or bets, highly and irreducibly uncertain,” he notes.
The Edge Singapore spoke to not a few experts for this issue, and a common theme emerged: The core challenge for Singapore is to remain relevant so that businesses will continue to come here, bringing along with them prosperity and jobs.
To be sure, the city state has a tried-and-tested formula. Its stable political environment, educated workforce and impressive physical and digital infrastructure have attracted considerable international investments for decades. There were $8.1 billion in investment commitments in just the first half of this year, up from the $5.3 billion in the same period the year before.
Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Aug 18 quoted the CEO of Finnish oil company Neste as saying: “The most valuable resource in the world is trust. But to find trust, one must first earn it. And to keep trust, one must continue to earn it. And here in Singapore, we have found the right people.”
Still, hardware alone is not enough to help Singapore stay relevant for the longer term. Instead, it is going to have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. That calls for a spirit of openness and flexibility to respond to, if not anticipate, the changes in its environment.
At the same time, can Singapore pivot from its long-term reliance on external demand, which has put it at the mercy of global headwinds? Does it have the resources — passion, bold ideas and the guts to follow through — to define its own relevance?
Yes, and in spades, according to observers whom The Edge Singapore spoke to. DBS economist Irvin Seah, for one, thinks this is especially apparent in the younger generation. Those in the pioneer generation were gutsy because they were in a do-or-die situation. Baby boomers may be more risk-averse, having grown up amid the country’s rapid growth. But the young ones, Seah says, “have the comfort and support of the older generations. They dare to dream. They dare to take chances, and they can afford to fail”.
Indeed, some of the profiles in this issue do inspire hope. There are Durapower, which started developing batteries for electric vehicles before that was hot; and the two young men in Binjai Brew, whose business started from an “unauthorised” university dorm enterprise.
Yet, even as Singapore tries to nurture a new generation that is quick to respond to the demands of an ever-changing economy, there are reminders that citizens also value justice and equality.
Take, for example, Hong Kong, which is now in its 13th week of unrest as peaceful protests turn into clashes with the police. In response to what it sees as disobedience, China has flexed its muscles, stationing its paramilitary in Shenzhen and saying it could transform the mainland city into a global business centre so that it will no longer need Hong Kong as a financial hub. Yet, protesters have shrugged off the threats to the economy, shutting down the airport and transport system and putting at risk the business activity that is at the core of Hong Kong’s existence.
Singapore may be unlikely to descend into such chaos, but there are signs for concern. One possible fracture here is the growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots.
Inequality has been a hot topic since May 2018, when President Halimah Yacob opened Parliament and noted in her speech that Singapore needed to tackle inequality and forge an inclusive society. Sociologist Teo You Yenn, who speaks about how the economic, social and political spaces are intertwined in a Q&A on Page 15, also wrote a book outlining the difficulties that low-income families face. Teo and fellow academic Ng Kok Hoe, who studies social policy, give suggestions that involve housing, wages and retirement.
Indeed, some are getting left behind. Children of parents who are more affluent get a head start in terms of a better home environment and education. The disparity between richer and poorer children widens with every generation and this inequality cannot be solved through social transfers and healthcare subsidies.
The Singapore government has recognised this concern, and PM Lee on Aug 18 announced more investment in preschool education so that every child, regardless of family background, gets the best possible start in life. The government is also gearing up the KidSTART programme, which supports low-income families with young children in the area of nutrition, child development and parent-child interaction.
As to how Singapore can shape its future, perhaps the ongoing Bicentennial Experience exhibition can give an indication.
At the end of the exhibition, visitors are invited to drop a ball into a container that represents a value most important to them and Singapore. The values are openness, multiculturalism, and self-determination.
As veteran diplomat Tommy Koh noted recently, the container representing self-determination had the most number of balls in it. In a commentary for National Day, Koh wrote: “The message is clear. Singaporeans do not wish to be ruled by Johor, London, Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur. They want to be the masters of their own destiny.”
This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore (Issue 896, week of Aug 26) which is on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here