History shows the path to success is not plain sailing

Technology and climate change have affected South-east Asia through the centuries, as shown in the ebb and flow in the fortunes of different rival cities

In today's world, the topics of climate change and technology are never far from the news. As we try to work out how to deal with these present and future challenges, it is easy to forget how important they have been in the past - and how closely they are linked to each other.

The history of South and South-east Asia, as well as of their peoples, cities and cultures, has been closely linked to weather patterns and technological innovation.

For centuries, being able to move goods - especially over long distances - meant having to understand weather patterns, and above all, how and when the winds made navigation easy or even possible.

Improvements to ship design, driven by the desire to transport larger volumes across seas and oceans, likewise have helped to shape the past.

In today's world, rapid technological advances have galloped ahead of changes to the natural environment - although activists rightly warn that the long-term consequences of the latter will be dramatic and large scale in the future.

Once, cities had to rely on their hinterlands to supply food and water while waiting for luxuries to arrive from afar.

Today, as Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in a speech at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference at the end of last month, Singapore's hinterland is the rest of the world: Planes, ships, trains and trucks can deliver whatever the inhabitants of the city want (and can afford), come rain or shine, through summer and winter.

Global interconnectedness creates many opportunities: Increased competitiveness drives innovation while also having an impact on prices and affordability. The frequency of commercial exchange is closely connected too to rising prosperity.


Visitors to the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Park watching a multimedia presentation on how Singapore developed into a dynamic port after Sir Stamford Raffles identified it as an ideal location for giving Britain a foothold in South-east Asia. ST FILE PHOTO

This was one reason why cities grew and flourished across Asia, Africa and Europe a thousand years ago, as vibrant trading networks over land and sea - which later came to be known as the Silk Roads - helped to spark a long period of stability and rising wealth.

Those who did well in long-distance trade were able to show the fruits of their investments - from merchants who were able to donate exquisite cloths to cover the holy Kaabah in Mecca in the 10th century, to provincial governors from the South China Sea whose extravagance was legendary.

The Malay Peninsula, according to one Chinese source, was where "East and West meet together". Anything could be bought there, "precious goods and merchandise; they are all there".

 
 

In the past, being in the right place at the right time was key to being able to benefit from an increased flow of goods.

After all, this was how the text now known as the Malay Annals explains the success of the first settlements in Singapore seven centuries ago: Singapore displaced Palembang as a trading centre, and "became a great city, to which foreigners resorted in great numbers so that the fame of the city and its greatness spread through the world".

But time does not stand still.

In due course, Singapore was itself overshadowed by Melaka - at least until Sir Stamford Raffles appeared in 1819, with the ambition of giving Britain a foothold in South-east Asia to bolster its position elsewhere.

Cities rise, but they also fall. What matters is being able to adapt. And that in turn depends on being able to read the winds and the currents. In the world of the connected 21st century, those winds and currents are geopolitical.

Cities rise, but they also fall. What matters is being able to adapt. And that in turn depends on being able to read the winds and the currents.

In the world of the connected 21st century, those winds and currents are geopolitical - the big, shifting patterns of the interactions, rivalries, collaboration and competition between states, regions and the global economy as a whole.

One reason for the successes of Singapore and South-east Asia over recent decades is the region's understanding of how best to navigate the storms of the Cold War.

The formation of Asean in 1967 came about in part as a result of its founder members' understanding that it was better to work together productively as a bloc to deepen regional cooperation and set a mutually beneficial common course.

The world of today and tomorrow requires careful thought and consideration.

For one thing, there are the realities of climate change to mitigate and prepare for, while rapid technological changes in artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber-instability and misuse of data present a host of problems whose seriousness is still becoming apparent.

Then there are the concerns about a range of inequalities challenging all the world's developed economies, where the fruits of globalisation have not been shared fully across the social spectrum - one reason for the rise of uncompromising, hardline politics across Europe and the United States.

Most serious of all, however, are the rising pressures on the global economy. Domestic slowdowns, falling productivity and trade wars - that have imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods - pose systemic threats to the equilibrium that so many around the world have become used to in recent decades.

This in turn makes it vital not only to understand the severity of the storm clouds that are gathering, but also to prepare accordingly.

If, as sometimes happens, the sun manages to break through and the clouds disperse, so much the better. But being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be disastrous.

 
 

Once, cities like Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Angkor and others were where important decisions were made in South-east Asia.

But as they failed to anticipate and adapt to the emergence of new competitors and wider sociopolitical, economic and military changes, and to significant shifts in climate patterns, they faded away, and new opportunities emerged that others rose to exploit.

One of the cities that rose to exploit the opportunities available was, of course, Singapore after Sir Stamford Raffles identified it as an ideal location to open up and exploit new opportunities in the region to bolster British commerce.

As the excellent Bicentennial Experience and the outstanding series of presentations at the Bicentennial Conference have shown, Singaporeans know that there is no such thing as plain sailing.

Success comes from experience, foresight, determination, and the odd bit of good fortune. And those are almost exactly the ingredients, qualities and characteristics that mediaeval texts used to single out as essential for ships to survive storms.

After all, anyone can get things right in good conditions; it's when the seas become choppy that things become really interesting - and dangerous.

• Peter Frankopan is a professor of global history at Oxford University. This article is adapted from a presentation made at the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Bicentennial Conference, held on Sept 30 and Oct 1.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'History shows the path to success is not plain sailing'. Print Edition | Subscribe