Straits Times Editorial: The importance of looking outwards

Singapore's success was in no small part built on its global orientation. It continues to be receptive to outside ideas and best practices, while making the most of its location to be a service provider to the world. In his National University of Singapore Society lecture, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a point of telling his audience of young working adults that any tendency to turn inwards, as Singapore society grows more complex, would be disastrous in an inter-connected world.

Working people and students who are absorbed with varied goals and pressing deadlines might well focus on what is at hand and not delve into external events. Certain foreign news, of course, may go viral, while other reports gain less attention or are circulated largely within interest groups. Yet other developments might be glossed over when they appear distant at first glance. However, there are good reasons to maintain a pre-occupation with constantly joining the dots.

While the melting Arctic ice concerns everyone because of its massive environmental impact, the consequent opening of new sea routes that bypass Singapore's port is news its citizens would want to track closely. Similarly, the way Gulf nodes are profiting from Africa's progress and the extent to which their carriers are gaining ground on trans-Asia routes deserve attention as an evolving trend that can affect Changi's valued hub status.

Business developments might not be everyone's cup of tea, yet there is no ignoring the way global markets have richly rewarded innovators and risk-takers in the stock market flotation of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Another example is the corporate splitting impulses of technology behemoths such as Hewlett-Packard and Symantec. Knowing about the implications of such moves and changing business models would better insulate people against surprises.

On the political front, few would be unaware of the ructions in Hong Kong and the street chaos that led to a military coup in Thailand. How these events are viewed, of course, can never be taken for granted. A city brought to its knees by the exertions of activists can be a metaphor for both the bad or the good in a political system, depending on one's leaning.

An exhortation to look outwards implies that a polity is mature enough to actively seek sufficient knowledge of the ground realities elsewhere - for example, to make necessary distinctions when drawing a parallel. It also assumes that outward-looking citizens will habitually put their judgments to the test by evaluating opposing critiques on the basis of rationality. To look at a fast-changing world in any other way would be a self-defeating exercise.