Kishore Mahbubani: Can Singapore Survive?

“You can never tell the future. And anybody who pretends he can tell the future, is lying to you

So we have always to be prepared for surprises, at the same time you have to learn manage the future. And the best way to be able to manage your future is to think of different scenarios that might emerge in the future, even if crisis came, how will my plans work against scenario A, scenario b, scenario C.

What I tried to do in my structured essay “Can Singapore Survive” is to list the key different scenarios in Singapore’s future. and none of us will tell which of these scenarios will play out.

The first scenario of course is “Yes”, Singapore will survive. The second scenario is “No”, Singapore will not survive and third, maybe will survive if Singapore did the right things.

So I gave 3 different scenarios. What I proposed to do is in the introductory essay. Of course there are various others essays that I also published from my previous writings in The Straits Times, so u can also find them.

So in each of the scenarios, you find that I tend to write in three points a lot. So in each of the scenarios I have given three points.

So let me start with the one “Yes” Singapore will survive. But of course let me emphasize one point at the very outset, okay? The likelihood that Singapore will survive ..the likelihood Singapore will do very well, that’s the over whelming probability, that’s very clear, and the reasons, why there are at least 3 reasons why this it the case

The first reason, Singapore has made massive investments, both it in human infrastructure and capital infrastructure. So if u look at this objectively, when u measure societies in terms of strength of society and in terms how they take care of people and in terms of educating the people , providing health care, providing employment, providing safe city etc etc.

There’s actually no other cities that can compare to Singapore and one of the most outrageous claim I made all the time which I made fellow professors at school of public policy angry with me but so far they haven’t been able to dispute me.

One of the most point i made is that, not since human history began, 5,000 years ago has any society improved the living standard of its people as quickly and as comprehensively as Singapore has done so in the last 50 years; not only from 3rd world to first world, actually from 3rd to 1st world in record time. I discovered this from many people when I was ambassador to United Nations, and I would have the head of UNICEF the late Mr James Grant said to me, Kishore, your Singapore record in reducing infant mortality is the fastest ever seen in human history. that’s a tremendous compliment coming fro head of UNICEF to Singapore. so we have done remarkable things in terms of strengthening our society in terms of remarkable things, in terms of improving our physical infrastructure so we have in place all the necessary things to ensure that we survive and we do well.

We also have the one of the world best civil services. The quality of our judiciary is among the best in the world. I say this because i have spoken to some of judges in leading cities in the world and i know how well we are. And we also have developed the instincts for survival.

That’s also very important. Like how I worked in Foreign Ministry for 33 years and i work very closely with colleagues from Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs. …They have done probabilities….that are world class. So given the tremendous investments we have made, clearly that’s one of the powerful reasons why Singapore will survive and do well..

The second reason why i believe Singapore will survive and do well is actually the topic of my next book which i was writing this morning. This book is on ASEAN. When i grew up in Singapore in the 1950s and 60s, South East Asia was considered one of the turbulent parts of the world. Popularly known as the Balkans of Asia and has greater diversity as in Europe and everyone though that here ethnic strife will be norm in South East Asia, and it was the norm in South East Asia in the 1950s 60s 70 even 1980s. Amazing. 40 years

We have trumpeted the region. and now, some amazing feat of history which we are still trying to understand in fact I finish writing this chapter this morning. on ASEAN ecosystem of peace that we have created. And i call this ASEAN ecosystem of peace a miracle because we have one of the most turbulent region in the world and we have created peace and harmony. So that’s another reason why Singapore will survive and do well…. Just looking at the watch to ensure i don’t exceed the time you know..You give ambassador a mike he can speak for 3 hours…That’s why i watching my time very carefully.. so that’s the second reason why Singapore will survive.

And the third reason why Singapore will survive and do well is that we have a tremendous historical opportunity of being Singapore. Because, this is most of my theme in writings..the consistent theme i have in my writings for the past 20 years is that the 21 century will be the Asian century. and it makes some people in the West very unhappy. But its a fact. And its happening fast. And so just like the European century, London served as the capital of the European century and in the American century, New York served as the capital of the American century and its clear in Asian century, there can be one city that can serve as capital in the Asian century will be Singapore.

Why Singapore?

Because Asian is a very large and diverse space. There are many civilizations..we have the Chinese civilization ,the Indian civilizations the Islamic civil and the western civilization which is alive and well in Asia, If u look around at all the cities in Asia there only one city in Asia that is very comfortable with all these civilizations. That’s Singapore. That gives us a tremendous, competitive advantage.
so again we have the opportunity to do very well in this Asian century. So u can see by now. So i hope i tell u enough.

So now I will tell u why Singapore will not survive. you might get a bit depressed. And I will give u three reasons why Singapore will not survive.

And these are real dangers and real challenges. So I talked about 3 big dangers Singapore may face in the next 10 to 20 years.

The first big danger that Singapore faces will be of course the some kind of political freak event. And what is this political freak event? You don’t need a rocket scientist to predict what is a freak event. It is very simply the emergence of a populist political party that promises the earth. And it is very easy .. …I think somebody disagrees with me here .

And it is so easy for a populist politician to make promises to Singaporeans. Because you know all populist politicians… Singapore’s problem is that we are one of the world richest countries. This is not any state secret. There are public data about the size of our foreign reserves …which i estimated , officially declared as 250 billion dollars. But still as ambassador to the United Nations, all my banking friends in New York city said, you must be joking. The reserves of Singapore is much supposedly larger than what was declared. This is the market practice. So if you are a populist politician, you tell Singaporeans you tell them this, listen if you vote for me, I will give each household in Singapore $10,000 a year. There are 1.7 million households in Singapore. Each one get $10,000, that means 17 billion dollars. No problem, we can follow. We have the money. Withe the temptation to vote for such populist politicians is very real. And it has happened. Off the record, I give u an example. the example of course is the successful example of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. He succeeded by telling the population he will give them money. take care of health for 30 baht!

And people voted for him. and its very easy. and if that happens frankly, if a populist politician takes over Singapore and start giving away money, Singapore will just slide down very fast. all u need is the loss of confidence from the rest of the world in Singapore and Singapore being the most open most globalised city in the world and the loss of confidence catch on, Singapore is finished. That’s one danger you can have.

Another danger you might have, is also frankly a real danger, is the possibility of the relations between the world’s number one power and the world number two power going bad.

And by the way today as you know, the world number 1 power is United States of America. The world number 1 emerging power is China and as you can see the world’s number 1 emerging powerr is about to overtake the world number 1 power. And indeed in purchasing power parity terms, China has became number one power of ASEAN. Now, normally as I grew up as a student in geopolitics, I can tell you the lessons of the last 3,000 years, is that when the worlds number one emerging power is about to overtake the worlds number one power, you should be seeing rising level of tensions between USA and china and that will be perfectly normal. But today what we see is abnormal. You see remarkably calm in the relation between U.S and China why that is the case you can …this is a subject of a one hour lecture which i gave in Harvard …you can go Harvard Kennedy website and download the lecture if u want. erm..its unusual; its an aberration. but if aberration goes to normal and if there is geopolitical rivalry between us and china, the country that has the most enormous difficulty is Singapore. Because we have very close relationships with the United States. We very very close. In fact in defence relations we are one of the best in the world. Yet at the same time 75% of our population is Chinese. So if Singapore is forced to choose between US and China, it puts the government in a very difficult position. so that is another challenge Singapore could face in the next 10 to 20 years.

The third way which Singapore could go down if there was freak event. One thing we know in life that always surprises. and we can have what a famous writer called Nicholas Nassim Taleb…what he calls black swans. And black swan events can happen. I give some examples in the book. i should mention them else u won’t buy the book.. But look at examples of black swan it can happen. If black swan event can happen, it can happen very quick, very hard and test your capacity to survive. Since i dun wan to end on a depressing note let me conclude by giving u 3 ways which i think Singapore can reinforce its capacity to survive in the next 3 years.

And these are the three suggestions I gave. So in the scenarios maybe Singapore can survive I can give 3 things Singapore can do to enhance our capability in surviving and the 3 reasons Are : number 1 – take a big tent approach what is big tent approach? It means in your political system u try to be as inclusive as possible. The reason for being politically inclusive is that as a result u can have lesser political polarization. Now its okay for big society. Lets take the classic case of United States, which is probably the most successful society in history overall and they are far more politically polarized. And u would think what kind of political polarization and United States will be in trouble and United States will go down. But instead you see the US dollar going up and Singapore dollar doing down. That’s amazing. That show the strong and resilience of American society that they can have this enormous polarization and remains strong. That is because united states is a big society. Singapore cannot afford that. If Singapore has the same degree of political polarization as the United States, I guarantee u Singapore dollar will go down very fast. So we have to prevent it. So how do we prevent political polarization? Let’s say have a big tent approach. And that’s by the way the approach of the founding leaders of Singapore; my great fortune of my life is that I actually I work directly with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, I work directly with Goh Keng Swee, I work directly with S Rajaratnam, so I know them intimately, personally and i know their approach.

And their approach was to try to bring in all the talent Singapore could find on board. So I give an example of the early days. it may come as a surprise to u in the early days, someone like Tommy Koh who is the member of the establishment, he was very critical of the govt when he was young! take ambassador Chan Heng Chee, she was very critical of the pap , she wrote two books you know, very critical of the PAP. And she became Ambassador to the United States? Even I wrote essays that were critical. In fact one of the things about this book that u enjoy reading “Can Singapore survive” is that I criticized what Mr Lee Kuan Yew did in the University of Singapore in 1969. But despite these criticisms, the govt said no, we will all work together. I think this is what we all need to do in the future . We need to remain political inclusive in the ways founding leaders were.

The second thing we need to do is to become what I call the cheerleader of ASEAN. To my first point when i mention Singapore will succeed, I mentioned one reason is that South East Asia is at peace but u can never take success for granted . ASEAN has been success so far because of exceptional leadership that i describe in relation for example, between Lee Kuan Yew and President Suharto which enable ASEAN to succeed and do very well. But you know the quality of leaders today are not the same as the quality of the leaders of yesterday. But don’t quote me on that.

So in the early days you need a lot of work to keep ASEAN going and doing well and any organisation to do well you needs a champion and i think this should be the responsibility of every Singapore citizen to become a champion of ASEAN. I say this because I find some of my fellow Singaporeans rubbishing ASEAN. But don’t they realised that ASEAN is the umbrella over our heads u know. ASEAN is the umbrella that is protecting Singapore . Why shouldn’t u hold your umbrella? That’s why I’m writing my next book on ASEAN to remind us that u have to protect his umbrella that we have created over Singapore.

And of course the last thing u need to do is that to ensure our survival is that we have to go back to do things the way the founding leaders used to do for Singapore. what happens with success u know, this is true this is another 3000 years story when society or companies or organisation become successful. One of the results u become successful if that u become risk adverse. Once u made your pile you are happy you are just protecting it. Actually for a small state like Singapore , the most dangerous you can do to yourself is to be risk adverse. You should continue to take risk to do well because if u dun take risk, you will be swept aside. You cannot just take the old formula of the past and we need to have frankly in Singapore a willingly to try radically and differently and don’t just assume that the formula of the past will work. i give u one example in the area of managing a city and managing transportation . the early leaders were very good they said ok u have to prevent growth of car population in Singapore that’s why you have COEs to try reduce car ownership and u have ERP but these r all measures …all negative measures to control car usage

That’s the old paradigm right?

But our society is changing. We have younger middle class that is far more open to the rest of the world. So instead of something negative, lets start with something positive which is to create a new paradigm of car usage in Singapore . For e.g: the driverless electric car is becoming very fast. Why don’t we be the first city in the world to say hey, car ownership is a thing of the past, that’s 19 century! Wow 21st century people don’t own cars. What we do? We own a smartphone and with a smart phone we put down i wan to go to Takashimaya to Siglap , where i live. The smartphone will tell u in 5 minutes an electric car will appear. You go down u hop onto the electric car , you arrive in Siglap, you get off the electric car , the fares you deducted from your smart phone. That technology is here. So why aren’t we the first city in the world to adopt it? Why are we still going after COEs and ERP? That’s an example of sticking with old models when the world has changed. So what we need to do now, frankly, drop the premises of the past and start bring something bold and different. I think if you do that, I think Singapore, frankly I believe Singapore will not just survive but do very well. I hope i have given you enough reasons why you should buy this book. Thank you. “



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