The Straits Times says

The future belongs to the imagination

It is apposite that the Future of Us exhibition should round up celebrations marking 50 years of independent Singapore. There is a sense in which Singaporeans have lived in the future since 1965. Nothing but a shared belief in the beneficial possibilities of change could have convinced the citizens of an unlikely country to confront the challenges of independence. Those ranged from the vital loss of the economic hinterland represented by Malaysia, to the uncertainties of a city-state's political survival in the global Cold War contest between communism and democracy. What mattered then was visionary leadership, which fired the imagination of Singaporeans and made them invest their collective energies in the future.

The Future of Us exhibition projects half a century of credible belief in progress onto coming eras. Technology will continue to play a definitive role in the process. Hardly anyone in the 1970s could have thought that Singapore's transport options would be transformed by the advent of the MRT, but the train system, for all its problems, has become an accepted fact of life today. Buildings have edged closer to the skies, to the point where a four-storey edifice, which would have been considered high-rise once, is now a throwback to a low-rise past. In the decades to come, scientific advances and technological ingenuity will redraw the landscape in a way that will make today's achievements appear passe.

Yet, the enabling hand of science and technology that raises living standards will need to be matched by the grasp of the social imagination to widen the scope of national life. That complementarity of material advances and social advancement should be a motif of the SGfuture dialogues, which are about the quest of a society worth building in the next 50 years. Singapore will need to strike a new balance between the needs of development and those of the environment, for example. The economic and ecological limits of consumerism are a subset of that search for a sustainable balance. Questions of ethnic space and social cohesion could be looked at anew, as could issues of moving towards a broader-based system of meritocracy. Deliberations at the dialogues would do well to reflect Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's declaration that Singapore's future would depend on what Singaporeans make of it together. Cultural diversity is a strength in this respect because it allows Singaporeans to discover and entrench the common spaces that embody their overlapping identities of race, religion and economic function.

As a public engagement exercise, the SGfuture dialogues could emulate the open and inclusive spirit of the Our Singapore Conversation process, which concluded two years ago. Singaporeans owe it to themselves to participate in charting the national destiny. The future begins now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2015, with the headline 'The future belongs to the imagination'. Subscribe