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Commentary

Moving beyond reflection in 2016

Singapore has entered a critical new phase; securing the future amid change will be key

Welcome to the future of Singapore's past.

Having spent 2015 in a year-long jamboree of reflecting on the better-than-anyone-expected progress over the last five decades, the Republic now enters its post-SG50 and post-Lee Kuan Yew era, with many pondering just what the future entails.

Will the years ahead see a continuation of Singapore's success story? Or is the road fraught with challenges, some foreseen and others as yet unimaginable? Will the Republic's fortunes be shaped by events beyond its shores and its ability to control? How will its sense of nationhood and collective purpose hold in the face of rapid and unrelenting change?

Over these 12 pages, my colleagues from The Straits Times newsroom will endeavour to shed light on what lies ahead, on matters ranging from housing and healthcare, to the state of the economy at home and abroad, as well as how events and issues might play out in some key countries.

To set the stage, here are some developments we will all be watching as 2016 unfolds:

FUTURE IS OURS TO MAKE

In a couple of weeks, Singapore's Parliament will reconvene and a newly elected government will spell out its plans. These are likely to include programmes to tackle both the unfinished business from the last term as well as some forward-looking initiatives.

Top of the agenda might be the need to press on with Singapore's economic restructuring and productivity push, if incomes and standards of living are to continue to grow, as people here expect them to.

Political leaders will want to keep the focus on these big-picture, long-term issues, even though many minds will be set on more immediate concerns, such as when the property cooling measures will be eased - as they must at some point, in the face of a massive supply of new properties coming on stream this year and next, just as interest rates are heading up - or, what will become of the much-criticised Primary School Leaving Examination, which the education authorities pledged to review.

More disruptions to train services, and seeming bewilderment over their causes each time, will also ratchet up pressure on the authorities for decisive steps to put the transport system right.

Indeed, the MRT is a good metaphor for the deep thinking and candid conversations that will be called for as Singapore embarks on a twin series of public consultations - the Future Economy and SGfuture dialogues.

In its early years, the MRT was viewed with pride by just about everyone, a hallmark for the efficiency and reliability that were synonymous with the Singapore brand. Indeed, in the 1990s, the Land Transport Authority spoke grandly of Singapore streaking ahead Towards A World-Class Transport System. Officials from abroad came to study the MRT, and tourists marvelled at its cleanliness, comfort and relative low cost to commuters.

Today, while the trains still run smoothly for the most part, any mention of the MRT invokes gnashing of teeth, or perhaps dark humour, not just about the congestion on the trains but more so the constant breakdowns.

Now, transport officials have a new mantra, that they are "working on it", striving to get the once vaunted system back on track to being world class.

The reasons for this unfortunate, and wholly unforeseen, twist of fate are well known - a management that shifted focus away from engineering and maintenance to commercialisation and profits, and a ramping up of commuting traffic ahead of the rise in the system's capacity, among other things.

In contrast, during a visit to London last month, I was struck by how the much older Underground system seemed to run without a hitch, with trains I encountered looking well maintained, and even newly refurbished.

Moral of the story: Being "world-class" is not an end station. The journey there is long and winding. And even when you think you have arrived, some other trains might streak ahead, leaving you rushing to catch a connection, or languishing on the wrong platform.

Singapore's MRT story might serve as as a cautionary tale for the rest of its economy and society.

Having moved from Third World to First in a generation, the country is now at a critical crossroads, and questions remain on whether it will be able to make the next big leap to being a fully developed economy, with its share of innovative regional and global enterprises, able to go beyond adding value to creating value. Fail to do so and it could see its past economic success derailed and having to begin "working on it" all over again.

These thoughts will be worth bearing in mind as Singapore embarks on discussions about its Future Economy. If Singapore is to remain a top-tier global city, then it must learn the lessons from its MRT journey: get the basics right, stay focused on what's important, invest in the future, even as it keeps seeking out and growing new niches and capabilities.

WE'RE ALL DISRUPTED NOW

Discussions on economic futures will also take place in the context of the massive, across-the-board disruptions taking place in just about every sector of society - from taxi drivers to radiologists, travel agents to retailers - we are all facing disruptions to business as we know it. Expect to hear much this year about the rise of robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and virtual reality, all of which will throw the lives and livelihoods of some into disarray even as those of others are enhanced.

Indeed, economic and social disruption facing societies will be on the agenda for global business and political leaders when they gather for their annual huddle in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos, for the World Economic Forum (WEF) conference later this month.

"Concern is growing about the effects of digital disintermediation, advanced robotics and the sharing economy on productivity growth, job creation and purchasing power," the WEF said in a note on the upcoming conference.

"It is clear that the millennial generation will experience greater technological change over the next decade than the past 50 years, leaving no aspect of global society undisturbed.

"Scientific breakthroughs - from artificial intelligence to precision medicine - are poised to transform our human identity. Therefore, leaders from all walks of life must prepare for a future of exponentially disruptive change."

WHO'S WATCHING THE POLLS?

The WEF meeting will take place a week after the Jan 16 presidential election in Taiwan, which the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is widely tipped to win. China, and the world, will be watching this outcome with some consternation for what it spells for cross-strait ties and stability in the region.

So, too, will eyes be on the result of the Nov 8 presidential polls in the United States. Will it be President Donald Trump who emerges to further his bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Or will a President Hillary Clinton rekindle that "special relationship" with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron?

Whatever happens, these two elections, which bookend the year, have the power to shape regional and global politics. Although Asian affairs will hardly figure in the long-drawn US presidential campaign, the eventual winner will have to manage the transition towards a new strategic relationship with China, with pressing issues such as regional trade integration and territorial disputes in the South China Sea continuing to bedevil ties in the region.

In May, polls will also be held to pick a new president in the Philippines and a new mayor in London. There will also be much talk about the political prospects of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - under fire over the wave of migrants into her country - and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - as the fight continues with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as other rebel groups.

But many will also be watching to see how the pollsters themselves - who have got their predictions so dramatically wrong in several recent outings - stack up when the ballots are counted.

THE FIGHT AGAINST FEAR

Even as ISIS appears to be on the retreat in Iraq and under pressure in Syria, the threat from its ideology of death and destruction remains real enough that the authorities cancelled New Year celebrations in Brussels and Paris and stepped up policing elsewhere.

The quest to counter and curb such acts of mindless terror will continue for some time to come, with more plots likely to be uncovered and foiled, even though the risk that some might yet be carried out remains real.

A stark reminder of the dangers of letting your guard down will come on the 15th anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, later this year.

A world in which key global leaders are divided on how to tackle the underlying issues, or distracted by more pressing matters such as elections at home, will remain a dangerous place, where fear could push voters into the arms of those who play on such anxieties.

THE MEANING OF COMMUNITY

Having declared itself, on New Year's Eve, an economic, social-cultural and political-security community, Asean now faces the challenge of making these grand assertions meaningful in the eyes of its citizens.

Unless the official pronouncements translate into initiatives which make travel, business and social interaction among residents of Asean countries more natural and seamless, the lofty talk will seem remote to most.

The test of Asean's willingness to think and act as a community will come during the annual forest-clearing season. Failure to prepare for and curb the burning, thereby allowing for a repeat of last year's choking haze, will result in the much talked about community seeming like so much hot air to most ordinary folk in the region.

EVENTS, KNOWN AND UNFORESEEN

Asia will be the focus of major events such as the G-7 meeting in Japan in May and the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in China in September, with both regional rivals seeking to impress their guests.

Other major events for the year include the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in August (hopefully, Joseph Schooling will bring home Olympic medals) while milestones to be marked include the 90th birthday of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and the Russian Revolution, the 400th year after Shakespeare's death and even the 500th anniversary of a law passed to assure the purity of German beer.

While these will capture much attention, what will remain most striking will be the events that catch us all by surprise, with the power to shock and awe.

Indeed, this time last year, for example, no one anticipated the Jan 7 attacks on the editorial offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, when cartoonists were brutally slain, let alone the terrorist rampage on the streets of Paris in November.

Closer to home, the outcome of the much-anticipated general election was unexpected by players on all sides. And no one saw the massive train breakdown in July coming or imagined that raw fish served in porridge at hawker centres might prove deadly.

So, it would be wise to expect the unexpected in 2016. For all our advances in communications, technology and human know-how, the world still retains an uncanny knack for making news that catches us all by surprise.

Happy New Year!

 
 
 
 
 
 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Moving beyond reflection in 2016'. Print Edition | Subscribe