SG+50: FUTURE TRENDS 2065

A new world order, thanks to Lee Kuan Yew

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

What might the geopolitical landscape look like in 2065? A veteran Pacific watcher gazes into the crystal ball with a touch of whimsy.

THE following may prove difficult to believe, but - trust me - a great deal will probably happen over the next 50 years. So be a little patient, please.

Let us start by imagining... a summer day in 2065.

A standard morning with the usual inescapable equatorial humidity. Two unspectacularly dressed diplomats trudge out of a government building as if the weight of the world were on their shoulders.

As they are career officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they appear rumpled and exhausted. Which they have every right to be: they are not just diplomats but Special Plenipotentiaries (SPs). They are empowered to bring to final effect rulings on difficult disputes, even involving the toughest territorial issues in the South China Sea, and they are dispatched not by the Singapore Government as national representatives but by the Global Appeals Court (GAC) which, after the second nuclear attack in 2045, rose from the decay of the limping World Court as a shining achievement of the historic Concert of Convergence of 2025.

But more on that later.

While their closing powers are immense, SPs have not been at peace for weeks. Each case has to be handled just right so that all parties walk away from the quarrel with a sense of justice not denied.

Of course, these super-closers are well rewarded for one of the hardest positions on the planet: Following the internationally admired Singapore system of compensating government workers competitively, the SP job description is nothing less than to prevent war by guiding GAC rulings into implementation.

Within the Asian Union, only a dozen super-diplomats from 11 countries have SP power. Singapore, where the Concert of Convergence was birthed in 2025, has the unique honour of fielding two.

And so the super-diplomats hop onto one of the island's solar-electric mass-transit lines that crisscross the city-state 20 hours daily and fast-tram it to the airport.

Their destination is Shanghai, Asia headquarters of the World Diplomacy Organisation (WDO). This is the successful successor to the unsuccessful United Nations, planted on an island landfill off China's largest city that is designated as international territory.

Instead of one such institution - as with the old UN in New York - there are regional WDOs. It was always silly to imagine that world government could be operated as one central unit.

The five-pronged successor to the bloated UN follows logically the principle of subsidiary in contemporary geopolitics.

Plenary WDO sessions are conducted in the amazing new Magnet technology, the 3D stereo successor to Skype; only ceremonial or annual global sessions actually take place in Shanghai. With exceptional modern telecommunications, there is no need for everyone to be packed together. Besides, ego crowding creates problems.

In Shanghai, the two diplomats will explain the GAC's ruling on the touchy Vietnam-Philippines GMO (genetically modified organism) tuna debacle to the quarrelling parties, answer questions and lay down the (international) law.

It is highly probable that when they are finished, the two parties will accept the judgment and walk away in a dignified fashion. There is always a chance they won't, of course, but the planetary consensus is deep and pervasive: It is dead tired of national squabbles and knows it faces much bigger existential challenges than divisive regional tantrums.

By 2065, it seems, Political Planet Earth has finally got its reality grip and abandoned the old Westphalian Hobbesian jungle.

It's complicated

LET me explain all this some more because, as you might imagine, it's complicated.

With all that has been pushing planet earth technologically and climatologically, it was preposterous to imagine that little would change geopolitically - not to mention (in a manner of speaking) within our collective global consciousness.

The big political change came to the world in a most unexpected way, however.

It started in 2025, a decade after the death of Singapore's modern founder Lee Kuan Yew, on the occasion of an "international policy conference" held at his namesake public-policy school, and organised in remembrance of his death.

The 10th anniversary event was to reflect on - while celebrating - the known wisdoms and credited innovations of the founding prime minister, whether domestic or international. The banner title - The Lee Kuan Yew New World Order Conference - was an obvious one, potentially fatuous (let's face it), but what was stunning was that it mushroomed into a true world summit, if Asia-heavy (which made sense, because such was the tilt of the geopolitical world by 2025).

Amazingly, every secular eminence who'd been invited showed up - foreign ministers, presidents, heads of distinguished universities and think-tanks.

What had happened was that during the decade after his death, the legend of LKY had not diminished but had swelled (in truth, some felt the relentless deified swelling had gone over the top).

It was as if everyone was nearing the end of their ropes and looking for something seriously different. What with the relentless, overwhelming climate problem and the frightening currency storms and the constant bickering in the South China Sea and the dramatic collapse of the UN - the consensus was that it was high time for big change, and the time and place for that change was now… here… in Singapore.

And why not?

The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy offered the perfect platform. What it lacked in architectural grandiosity, it more than made up with its aura of substantive mission and intellectual rigour. Since its founding in 2004, it had worked diligently to establish a rigorous regional standard for policy studies.

It was soon a beacon of intellect bobbing atop neighbouring oceans of policy mediocrity.

By 2025, the reputation of the school named after Singapore's longest-serving prime minister was firmly established - ranked on the level of even Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

The first sense that something special was in the air came from the school's outgoing dean, a recognised global thought leader, offering his farewell speech after 21 years at the helm.

Titled Convergence Or Catastrophe, it dramatically set the stage for the retiring Singapore Prime Minister: His moving speech was both elegiac and pragmatic, evoking his father's belief in the almost religious vocation of public service.

"It deeply affects people's lives," the Prime Minister recalled his father saying over and over to him when he was growing up. Following right on the logic of the dean's speech, the PM called for a new world order - "the Concert of Convergence".

A secret conversation

A SIDE seminar had unpredictably added an odd but useful element. The seminar leader was an ageing journalist who had interviewed Lee Kuan Yew a number of times and had written a book on him.

What the book purposely omitted - claimed the journalist - was a secret conversation LKY insisted be held back until well after his death because of its idealistic content. As it turned out, in his last years Lee had committed secret world-reorganisation notes to a plain school notebook kept in a locked drawer at his desk at the Istana office.

The journalist told the seminar attendees that his sweeping denunciation of the current "world disorder" was mesmerising both in its feral ferocity and studious detail.

Nobody quite believed the journalist's account of the secret notebook; he was an American, after all - and thus subject to narrative flights of fancy, not to mention psychopharmacological hallucination. And, of course, no one ever did find the alleged secret notebook. But the very thought pushed the conference to act as if the creation of a new order was the legendary leader's last dying wish.

And so the attendees, working closely with the LKY School experts, hammered out the final blueprint for the Global Appeals Court, which would issue binding decisions on geopolitical disputes. The rulings would be executed by diplomats whose distinguished careers marked them for international service in the WDO. (They had gained appointment through a series of rigorous examinations - Singapore-style).

Their work in implementing GAC decisions would be backed up - ultimately - by the joint authority of China and the United States; the combined WDO Joint Chiefs actually worked together as a unitary force, with China basically focusing on the expanse of Asia, and the US everywhere else except Europe, with its revitalised European Union, and Africa, with its surprisingly high-performing African Union. (Close cooperation between China and the US was bottom-line required for any new order - inconceivable without it.)

The administration of the Concert of Convergence came from a global system of meritocratic appointments (nations competed with brains instead of brawn), with continuing educational training and retraining for the SP corps (at the LKY School and the other obvious places around the globe), and disciplined leadership.

Notwithstanding the gradual evolution of a vigorous two-party system, Singapore maintained leadership of the Concert of Convergence with annual policy conventions.

In the fashion of the city-states of Florence, Milan and Venice of the 14th and 15th centuries, Singapore became an exemplar that helped shape the geopolitical world.

That, it seemed, was the finest legacy a legendary founding prime minister could have wanted to leave behind, secret notebook or not.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and observer of Pacific affairs. From 1989-1995, he was editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. He went on to write a syndicated column on the United States' relations with Asia and the Pacific. He is now distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He has written over 10 books, including a series of interviews with Asian leaders which include Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew.