Future Trends 2065: Whither Singapore?

Skyline of the Central Business District (CBD) on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES 
Skyline of the Central Business District (CBD) on June 4, 2015. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES 

What do you get when a bunch of thinkers - some sombre, some out-of-the-box, all specialists in their fields - are tasked to put on their horizon-scanning caps to imagine the future?

A cornucopia of ideas, that's what.

The Straits Times has been running a series of essays on Mondays in the Opinion pages from leading thinkers, titled SG+50: Future Trends 2065.

Their brief: Write about trends that will affect Singapore in the next five decades.

We have published five so far; and have another 15 to go. The series is supported by Singapore's port operator PSA.

As the editor in charge of commissioning and shaping this series, I've been having an exhilarating journey reading the essays as they land in my mailbox.

You know the frisson you get when you read something that you know immediately is both profound and chilling, and that will - or should - alter the worldview of anyone reading it?

I got that from Professor Wang Gungwu's essay on Singapore's "Chinese dilemma" - on the challenges facing Singapore, as a majority Chinese society in ethnically diverse Southeast Asia, in a region with an emergent, more assertive China.

Prof Wang was born in Indonesia, raised in Malaysia and educated in China, Malaya and London. He has taught in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.

His own background gives him a unique perspective on Chinese-majority societies. As an outsider-insider, someone who has worked and lived here for years, but who is Australian by nationality, he is able to dissect Singapore's options clearly and dispassionately. Will Singapore's Chinese population be divided in their attitudes towards China as a superpower? What might be Singapore's role if nationalism turns ugly in neighbouring countries, and people of Chinese descent are attacked there? These are touchy issues, dealt with delicately by Prof Wang.

Coincidentally, another thinker in Singapore touched on the ethnicity-foreign policy connection. Bilahari Kausikan warned that big powers in the region will want to influence domestic opinion on foreign policy.

In his usual plain-speaking trenchant style, the former foreign affairs permanent secretary has little patience with those who do not understand the existential realities of Singapore's position as a small, very rich and ethnically diverse city-state, in a poor, volatile region that is becoming the geopolitical arena for a big power contest of wills.

"I was flabbergasted when a Singaporean PhD candidate in political science in a local university asked me why Singapore could not pursue a foreign policy like that of Denmark or Switzerland.

"It was quite a struggle to remain calm and reply blandly that it is because Singapore is in South-east Asia, not Europe, and the circumstances of these regions are obviously different. If a PhD candidate could ask such a silly question, I shudder to think what the average Singaporean understands of our circumstances."

You may not agree with all his views, but they are certainly worth knowing about.

We started the series of essays with two articles from futurists.

Peter Schwartz, famous for The Art of the Long View, a treatise on scenario planning, and who has been closely involved with Singapore for over three decades, puts Singapore's choices as one between becoming a world city or a regional backwater.

Peter Ho, former head of civil service in Singapore and now senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, thinks Singapore may need to rethink citizenship in some ways.

"One possibility is to rethink how we can encourage more people to contribute to Singapore.

Estonia, a country smaller than Singapore, introduced e-citizenship. It allows non-citizens to perform transactions, both governmental and commercial, that can generate economic activity within Estonia.

While it does not confer the same privileges or command the same emotional connections as traditional citizenship might, the decision to call this e-citizenship, rather than a business visa, implies the hope that this is a connection that is stronger than a commercial one."

And Tom Plate, a veteran Pacific watcher from Los Angeles, has a whimsical - and optimistic - view of Singapore's place in the world in future.

In 2065, he says, Singapore will be at the centre of a new world order where super-diplomats meet to make decisions on global disputes. Instead of big power competition, a Concert of Convergence agreement will get big powers to agree to abide by global rules to settle disputes. And Singapore will be at the centre of such a forum.

A pleasant fantasy, you say? In fact, stranger things have happened to Singapore: its history from a poor nation-state to global city today is a subject more for an utopian fantasy than a rational forecast.

From this series of five articles, it is quite clear what these thinkers consider underlying, tectonic plates on which Singapore's future will sit. Apart from the Big Global issues that every society must contend with - climate change, the speed of technological change and each society's own demographic realities - it is geopolitics that will shape the trajectory of Singapore's future: the interplay of relations among nations in our part of the world.

The big picture view of Singapore's future is generally sombre.

What of specialists' views of Singapore's economy and society? There are 15 more essays to look forward to, in this series each Monday. Do follow us at straitstimes.com/news/opinion.

stopinion@sph.com.sg