The Thai Canal that may change Singapore forever

Singapore-based thinker Parag Khanna's new book brought an old worry back to life for The Straits Times reader Lum Pak Meng.

Mr Lum, 58, said at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday at the National Library Board headquarters that he had read in Khanna's Connectography that Thailand was a step closer to building the Thai Canal by cutting through its chokepoint called the Isthmus of Kra, as China would help foot the bill.

If built, the canal would link the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea directly, bypassing Singapore. This link was first mooted in the 17th century by French developer Ferdinand de Lesseps. If Thailand created it, the canal would shorten voyages from Europe to China by 1,200km and end Singapore's status as a top sea hub.

"I've been hearing about this canal since I was young," said Mr Lum, a self-employed writer and researcher. "Now it seems like it might really come true."

As Khanna, 37, put it in Connecto- graphy: "Today… modern technology combined with Asian energy demand and Chinese willpower makes the Thai Canal not just a plausible, but even a logical and desirable alternative to the 'Malacca trap'."

The trap refers to the pirate- infested Strait of Malacca.

Besides being a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum, Khanna is also a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, after a stint at the prestigious Brookings Institution in the United States.

Connectography, which he launched this month, shows how those who control global supply chains - in which, say, Bangladeshi tailors sew clothes for fashion brands such as Zara and H&M, which then sell them in many countries - control how the world is run, instead of country leaders.

He coined the term "connectography" from the words cartography, or the study of maps, and connectivity.

At Wednesday's meet, which I moderate monthly and which complements my Sunday Times column The Big Read, readers likened Khanna to the prescient futurist Alvin Toffler, who wrote Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980) and Powershift (1990).

But while they lauded Connectography as a "brilliant book bursting with insights", they also said that real life was often more complex and nuanced than thinkers sometimes made it seem.

Khanna championed infrastructural projects as a way to generate jobs, but German economist Hans Schniewind, 57, cautioned against seeing such projects as a "quick fix" for unemployment woes.

Mr Schniewind, who runs his own equity investing firm SKMC here, said he had seen so many empty highways in Serbia and Greece and empty airfields in China. He said: "The Singapore Government does a marvellous job of investing in necessary infrastructure, but that is not always the case elsewhere."

Mr Vincent Loo, 58, a commodities sales and relationship manager at financial software and media company Bloomberg, said that while Khanna credited connectivity with lifting more people out of poverty than before, it had also created a lot of "unevenness" in wealth distribution.

Agreeing with him, Ms Shubha Narayanan, who is in her 50s and heads management consultancy HR Strategies, said: "Economic prosperity is not the be-all and end-all. You need to be inclusive, irrespective of your race or position in society. Many people are feeling more disempowered these days, so we have to find ways in which everyone can enjoy the benefits of connectivity."

She then mused: "I hope we will not just become a world of producers and consumers."

•The next Big Read Meet will be with ST Associate Editor Ravi Velloor, on his debut book India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears. It will be on May 25 from 6.30pm, venue to be confirmed. Sign up for it at NLB e-Kiosks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'The Thai Canal that may change Singapore forever'. Print Edition | Subscribe