Keeping identity and values intact amid globalisation

Question: What's the link in this list of troublesome issues that have made the news recently: Zika, 1MDB's money-laundering probe, public outcry over online gambling and last month's Internet attack on StarHub?

The short answer: Globalisation.

In other words: Help! The world outside is pouring in from everywhere and disturbing the peace.

You would never have thought it would be a problem in open, globalised Singapore which has made a name for itself as being one of the most connected places in the world.

Being welcoming to the world has brought enormous benefits to this little red dot.

But too much of a good thing can be dangerous and Singapore, like many other countries, is finding out how harmful it can become if not properly managed. In fact, this is turning out to be one of the biggest challenges of our time, and it isn't just about the big issues such as Brexit and immigration.

You only have to look at the list I mentioned earlier to appreciate how varied the problems are.

The Zika virus is the most straightforward and easiest to deal with. Starting with Sars in 2003, followed by the avian flu H5N1, chikungunya and now Zika, these infectious diseases have spread faster and farther than ever before because people now travel more frequently for business and pleasure.

Singapore is particularly vulnerable because it is an aviation and shipping hub attracting large numbers of travellers from everywhere. It was hit hard by the Sars virus which killed 33 people and caused the economy to come to a virtual standstill.

But infectious viruses though deadly can be dealt with because the enemy is known and the solutions are clear-cut, provided they are implemented swiftly and effectively.

Singapore is adept at it because it has an efficient healthcare system and the Government can mobilise resources quickly.

Last month, when I interviewed Dr Lisa Ng, a Singapore scientist specialising in infectious diseases, she recounted how the work done by researchers here on the chikungunya virus was used as a benchmark by other countries when they were investigating Zika.

They trusted the findings because of Singapore's reputation for quality and reliability.

It shows the importance of developing your own expertise, accumulating homegrown knowledge and experience so you can deal with problems quickly when they arise. And there's the added benefit of being able to sell these services to others.

Globalisation lesson No. 1: Having the expertise to deal with globalisation's ills is a valuable skill in great demand today.

The computer viruses that brought down part of the StarHub network last month are a different kind of infection but as deadly and even more prevalent.

It is hard to fathom this new world where very smart people working in anonymous organisations spend their time trying to infiltrate and bring down other computer systems.

In the latest attack which affected large parts of the US, the perpetrators focused on an American company providing specialised Internet services.

According to reports, attackers now target everyday devices connected to the Internet - anything from webcams to wireless routers and printers. These are vulnerable because they are now cheaply produced and have minimal built-in security.

But because they are connected to the World Wide Web (it's called the Internet of Things), they enable hackers, after infiltrating these devices, to go on and create havoc in other sensitive equipment and data, like StarHub's network.

For Singapore, as for many others, it presents a classic dilemma. You want to make use of all the wonderful things the online world promises.

Indeed Singapore has ambitious plans to become the world's first smart nation, using computer technology to make the city work more efficiently in transportation, healthcare and education.

But how to do so and make sure it does not open itself up to a catastrophic attack?

It is possible to strengthen the firewalls and have all sorts of safeguards, as I am sure is being done. But here's globalisation lesson No. 2: When the world is determined to get in (think Russian and Ukrainian hackers), you can bet your latest anti-virus software that it surely will, one day.

It's important therefore to make sure critical services such as the MRT, airport, electricity and water supply are not compromised in the headlong rush to become more online efficient. The same lesson holds for the globalised financial world.

Indeed, the current probe into 1Malaysia Development Berhad highlights a problem long identified by Singapore's early planners. Former finance minister Goh Keng Swee resisted internationalising the Singapore dollar because he worried the country would become vulnerable to speculative attacks.

It was a different world then, with a much less-connected economy than today's.

But while the financial landscape has changed, the worry remains.

Singapore is now a premier financial hub, attracting vast sums of money from outside seeking safety and opportunities. According to a Deloitte study, it is now sixth in the world as a wealth management centre.

But too much money pouring in can create problems, as it did in the property market boom a few years ago, which was why the Government had to act to cool it down.

Now, the problem is one of illegal money seeking a safe haven, which is what the 1MDB case is about. The Monetary Authority of Singapore was right in acting swiftly and robustly, resulting in two Swiss banks closing down and four Singaporeans being charged in court.

Singapore's reputation as a financial centre should be based on it being the most trusted and dependable, not being the largest with the most money.

Globalisation lesson No. 3: Stay true to what you are, and are good at. Don't be obsessed by what the world wants.

Which leads to the most controversial issue of the lot: the decision to allow the Singapore Turf Club and Singapore Pools to operate online gambling while prohibiting all others.

Despite a public outcry over the move, the Government stuck to its guns, arguing that gambling is freely available on the Internet and banning it outright would merely drive it underground.

That's a valid argument but it misses the point critics are making because, to them, it's not about who gets to operate the business. It is about values and whether they can hold on to them despite the darndest efforts of the rest of the world.

Online gambling may be everywhere and part of the reality of a globalised world, but as long as Singapore is their country, they want to keep it out - that's the message from the anti-gambling group.

I think this battle over values and identity will increasingly shape the globalisation debate.

It's no longer about the cost and benefit of being open, which can be ambiguous and too hard to comprehend anyway.

Globalisation lesson No. 4: Values and identity are important and people will fight to keep them.

• The writer is also senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping identity and values intact amid globalisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe