2017: A dangerous and testing year

Jostling for power among countries on the rise, so S'pore needs leaders who can protect its interests

China was a big winner in 2017, the United States an erratic also-ran and North Korea the year's show-off.

Singapore?

There is a Latin word, annus horribilis (it means a horrible year), that might come close to describing the year. But more of this later.

How to make sense of all that had happened in 2017?

It isn't easy and you have to go beyond the individual events that made the news headlines to see the emerging picture.

Different writers might come to different conclusions but, for me, the 2017 story was about countries continuing the jostling for their place under the sun.

US President Donald Trump's latest pronouncement to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is the latest piece in the Middle East puzzle to be moved in 2017, but it is unclear what picture will emerge in the coming years.
North Korea's Hwasong-15 missile being launched last month. The country's nuclear crisis hogged the news for months, making many in Asia more anxious than they have ever been about war breaking out. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The shake-up began after the Cold War as new powers emerged to challenge the established order led by the US.

There is now an even more intense jockeying for influence and power following President Donald Trump's election and his "America First" approach, which has made for a more uncertain foreign policy.

It isn't clear how much he will actually depart from traditional US positions, but the unpredictability has already led to several earth-shaking events around the world.

The North Korean nuclear crisis hogged the news for months, making many in Asia more anxious than they have ever been about war breaking out.

The underlying story for leader Kim Jong Un may not have changed at all - ensuring the survival of his regime - but his actions in 2017 became more risky and urgent because he fears the world around him is changing to his detriment before he acquires nuclear weapons.

Puzzle of the year: How did a small renegade country, with an economy that some experts estimate to be the size of Uganda's or Haiti's, seize the world's attention?

The answer to this question says more about the other powers involved in the stand-off, including the US and China, than it does the nuclear wannabe.

But the more dangerous jostling is taking place in the Middle East.

North Korea's Hwasong-15 missile being launched last month. The country's nuclear crisis hogged the news for months, making many in Asia more anxious than they have ever been about war breaking out.
US President Donald Trump's latest pronouncement to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is the latest piece in the Middle East puzzle to be moved in 2017, but it is unclear what picture will emerge in the coming years. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Last month, 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a stunning move to strengthen his rule, detaining family members and other powerful figures.

It sent shock waves round the world, not just because of the audacity of the mass arrests but the knock-on effect they will have in the neighbourhood.

He, too, wants to strengthen his country's future amid the changing international landscape and the proxy war with Iran.

The Prince's daring exertions could not have been carried out without US support, and especially from President Trump.

That makes it even more worrisome as America has had a dismal record getting it right in the Middle East.

How then not to worry about Mr Trump's latest pronouncement to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital?

It was the latest piece in the Middle East puzzle to be moved in 2017, but it is unclear what picture will emerge in the coming years.

For Asians though, the largest piece in their part of the world moved as orderly and as predictably as the sun rising in the east.

When the Chinese Communist Party's 19th Party Congress concluded in October, President Xi Jinping's strongman rule was strengthened considerably, ensuring his global ambitions for the country will continue apace.

The One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing involving 65 countries capped the year for China, extending its reach and influence well beyond its borders.

President Xi did not need to proclaim "China First", but his actions put it firmly at the head of the table among many countries with substantial economic and political links to it.

As the balance of power between the US and China shifts, expect even more jostling in this part of the world.

How did Singapore cope amid these changes? Did what happened within the country help or hinder its ability to survive and thrive in such an uncertain world?

That, for me, was the key question for Singapore in 2017.

Alas, I am afraid the record wasn't a pretty one.

For some, it was annus horribilis (reminder: a horrible year), a term made famous by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 1992 when the royal family appeared to be falling apart.

The Lee siblings' squabble over the fate of their father's Oxley Road house brought shame not just to the family but also to the country.

At its darkest hour, amid accusations and counter-accusations, Singaporeans feared the worst over the damage it would do to the Government and especially the Prime Minister.

There is now an uneasy truce within the broken family, but the unhappy episode was a reminder to Singaporeans of what can happen in a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore.

If even the illustrious Lees can fall down so badly, what might be next? That might well be the question of the year.

The flooding of an MRT tunnel causing train services to break down in October and a train collision the following month were among the most debated issues in 2017.

It wasn't just because of the large number of commuters affected daily but what the breakdowns represented.

It raised questions about Singapore's reputation for performance, which had brought the country to where it is today.

Were the MRT failures a sign of declining standards in the post-LKY era, signalling an end to Singapore's exceptionalism?

The reserved presidential election in September, with Madam Halimah Yacob qualifying as the only Malay candidate, divided the country.

There was unhappiness over the way the process was managed, but the Government was determined to push it through, arguing the move was necessary for multiracial Singapore to have its highest office always open to all races.

If there is a common thread running through these episodes, it was that they tested Singaporeans' confidence in the country's leadership.

Perhaps this is inevitable as the country makes the transition to the next generation of leaders who have to prove themselves and earn the respect their predecessors enjoyed.

But they have to do this quickly because the jostling in the rest of the world will increase and Singapore will require a leadership that has the strong support of the people to ensure its interests are protected.

It will also have to do better internally and avoid the sort of self-inflicted wounds that 2017 exposed.

If the right lessons are learnt, Singaporeans might yet benefit from all that pain.

Happy Christmas and New Year.

• The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 24, 2017, with the headline '2017: A dangerous and testing year'. Print Edition | Subscribe