Wanted: A new Pioneer Generation bold enough to change mindsets

An ageing population. Climate change raising sea levels. Always-on technology. In this brave new world, Singapore needs a generation bold enough to change mindsets.


The passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March has generated a tremendous amount of reflection on how he transformed Singapore from a Third World backwater into a First World city-state within less than two generations.

But as Mr Lee himself said: "The past was not pre-ordained. Nor is the future. There are as many unexpected problems ahead, as there were in the past."

We cannot predict the future. Anyone would be hard-pressed to know how things will turn out in 10 to 20 years' time. What more to forecast the world 50 years into the future?

The best we can do is to identify the key trends that could have significant impact on the world and on society. By being aware of trends, including emerging ones, we can position ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise and to confront challenges when they occur.

There are three big trends that I feel will have a decisive impact on Singapore, and the world, in the next 50 years. Their long-term trajectories cannot be forecast with any certainty, but they are beginning to trace paths that suggest their impact will be significant and game-changing.


The first trend is demographics. There are many angles, but one of the most critical is ageing. Singapore is one of the fastest-ageing societies in the world, with nearly 100,000 people turning 65 in the past four years alone. Over the next 15 years, the number of elderly people will double to almost a million.

But we will not be alone. Within that same timeframe, one in four people above age 65 will be living in China, compared with one in five today. The World Health Organisation expects the above-65 share of the global population to double from 11 per cent to 22 per cent by 2050.

As populations around the world age, and falling fertility rates shrink the youth bulge, governments face the dilemma of looking after a greying population on the one hand, and securing the talent and manpower to generate economic growth on the other.

In 50 years' time, the issue, if it ever was, will neither be about foreign talent displacing the local workforce, nor about how large a population Singapore can accommodate. Instead, the real challenge will be how to offset the impact of a greying population.

Bold thinking will be required.

One possibility is to rethink how we can encourage more people to contribute to Singapore.

Estonia, a country smaller than Singapore, introduced an e-residency scheme that is being described as "e-citizenship". It allows non-citizens residing elsewhere to perform transactions, both governmental and commercial, that can generate economic activity within Estonia.

While it does not confer the same privileges or command the same emotional connections as traditional citizenship might, the decision to call this e-citizenship, rather than a business visa, implies the hope that this is a connection that is stronger than a commercial one.

As the world ages, demand will rise for better solutions to maintain quality of life for the elderly worldwide. Singapore is actively developing a comprehensive ageing masterplan that addresses not just healthcare and retirement adequacy, but also employment, volunteerism, urban infrastructure and scientific research.

Singapore wants to transform longevity from a problem into a powerful resource. With an entrepreneurial mindset, we can convert a demographic "wicked problem" into a new economic opportunity. Solutions developed in Singapore to give the elderly healthy, meaningful and productive lives can be turned into exports to other parts of the world also dealing with the challenge of ageing.

But we will have to treat this not as a problem of the future, but one we must grapple with today.

Another aspect of the demographic trend is urbanisation. By 2012, 50 per cent of the world's population were living in cities. The pace of global urbanisation continues unabated. The United Nations' 2014 Report on World Urbanisation Trends reveals the percentage of global population living in cities will hit 66 per cent in 2050. Ninety per cent of the rise will be concentrated in the developing countries of Asia and Africa.

Singapore is arguably one of the few cities in the modern world that has succeeded in creating a high-quality urban environment despite being one of the most densely populated. But significant challenges lie ahead. An ageing population, climate change, and inevitable changes in the economic structure due to competition and technological shifts will stress the solutions to urbanisation that Singapore has so successfully employed in the past.

But Singapore is no longer a tabula rasa, or a "blank slate", on which we have the luxury to build a new city and brand-new infrastructure. Instead, Singapore will have to renovate where it should, upgrade where it must, and experiment where it can.

We will have to try out new technologies and societal arrangements. Every new technology that is deployed, even in a pilot programme, will need societal adjustment and then acceptance.

As a nation, we must be willing to set aside tried-and-tested solutions that worked in the past, to experiment with new ones that have no precedent. We will have to embark on expeditions of discovery together, once again, as we did after independence, to find out for ourselves what works and what does not work.

Once again, Singaporeans will be called upon to sacrifice short-term convenience of the comfort of the status quo, accepting some disruptions to their daily lives that pilots, trials and experiments entail. But carefully managed, most will succeed, and then the future of Singapore as a sustainable and liveable city will be bright.

Climate change

THE second trend is climate change. Climate change is no longer an abstract debate among scientists, economists and policymakers. For Singapore, like many other countries around the world, it has become real. More intense rainfall over Singapore in recent years is now understood to be caused by rising temperatures. Combined with urbanisation, it has led to flooding, a phenomenon absent for decades because of a well-designed drainage system.

But in the longer term, the challenge is not flooding, but rising sea levels. As an island, parts of Singapore will be at risk when sea levels rise. Yet, where there is risk, there is also opportunity.

If we have to build dykes to prevent rising waters from flooding parts of Singapore, why not think synergistically and "whole-of-nation", and incorporate other functions into these dykes at incremental cost, like roads, water storage, and common service tunnels?

Post-industrial technologies

THE third trend is post-industrial technologies. By this I mean technologies that we commonly associate with computerisation and information technology. These technologies are changing at a pace governed by Moore's Law, an empirical law stating that computing power doubles every two years.

In the last few years, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, big data and its hand-maiden, data analytics, and the Internet of Things, are taking off.

AI, exemplified by IBM's Watson and its cognitive computing capability, is showing promise that did not even exist a few years ago. Advances in robotics mean that jobs that could be done only by human workers will in the near future be assigned to robots.

Earlier this year, Australian researchers announced the creation of the world's first 3D-printed jet engine. The Internet of Things is quickly becoming the Web of Everything, generating enormous amounts of data - big data - from an ever-increasing network of interconnected sensors that also interface with and impact the real world. Combined with data analytics, this will lead to the next wave of productivity breakthroughs through automation.

The rise of cyber-physical systems and the physical manifestations of digital technologies such as autonomous vehicles will be the backbone in the future of Singapore, the Smart Nation.

All these technologies are maturing rapidly. They will converge and entangle with one another in the not-too-distant future to produce new technologies that we cannot even imagine today. Nations and governments prepared for this new wave of technologies will have the competitive advantage. Singapore can ride the wave.

Indeed, Singapore has been preparing for this moment for many years. The effort, beginning with the national computerisation programme, has seen successive leaps forward. A vibrant research and development community, coupled with a strongly emerging culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, will position Singapore to exploit these post-industrial technologies.

But it is also inevitable that these technologies will have a disruptive impact. They will create new jobs, but make other jobs redundant. People will have to acquire new skills and new knowledge. Lifelong learning in such a world of fast-changing technologies will not be rhetoric but a reality.

In a 24/7 online world, constantly surrounded by innumerable sensors and smart objects, all connected to the Internet - the Internet of Things - traditional notions of privacy will be challenged. To fully reap the benefits of these technologies, it is not enough that there are ambitious plans and policies. A mature conversation is needed on the impact of technology on issues like privacy, security and jobs.

But there can be no absolutes. Change is happening fast. It is therefore imperative that this conversation aims to find a middle and pragmatic ground on technology that addresses the concerns of society, and meets the needs of the economy.

The risks

THESE trends will generate many risks and dangers, even as they produce opportunities. There is one risk that Singapore should be alert to, that I wish to highlight.

Singapore enters its next half-century in an environment where there are centrifugal forces at play. The larger source countries of its major constituent ethnic groups are rapidly catching up with the developed world.

Fifty years into the future, Singaporeans might be attracted to the siren call and go off to be foreign workers and "new citizens" in other countries. On the other hand, Singaporeans could stake out their place in this new - and exciting world - and take on the competition, as their forefathers did 50 years before.

Too much navel-gazing and fretting over Singapore's "constraints" could cause us to throw away the many advantages that we do possess, and miss out on the opportunities that will lie ahead.

The legacy of Mr Lee Kuan Yew lies in the strong institutions of government that he built, a globally competitive private sector, and a well-educated population. While the challenges of the next 50 years are real, we need a new generation of pioneers to have faith in Singapore, and stand up to be counted on by their country.

The future remains for the making. Each generation can bring new energy and new dreams.

My belief is that Singapore will continue to be a welcoming place for these dreams, and a country where these hopes become our new realities.

The writer is senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, set up by the Public Service Division to develop public-sector capabilities for future strategic challenges.

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