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Navigating the Global Landscape: Singapore’s Challenges and Opportunities

07 Feb Navigating the Global Landscape: Singapore’s Challenges and Opportunities

Being a small country, Singapore faces the risk of being forgotten in a world that is increasingly inundated by emerging and persistent conflicts where the rules-based order is at stake. To stay relevant, Singapore must focus beyond the horizon by building its unique value proposition to the world and projecting a credible international leadership. Domestic cohesion is crucial to achieving that, and Singapore must remain vigilant in ensuring that peace and harmony in the country are not taken for granted. Such observations and reflections were shared by Singapore’s Minister for Education, Mr Chan Chun Sing, at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ (SIIA) opening talk for the year 2024, moderated by Chairman of SIIA, Associate Prof Simon Tay.

Rules-Based World Order and Singapore as a Broker

Addressing the troubled global environment, Mr Chan expressed concern that recent conflicts such as the Ukraine war, Israel-Hamas war, and tensions regarding Taiwan have highlighted a deeper problem. Beyond the immediate and surface-level issues, these conflicts have shown a fundamental breakdown in the international rules-based system. Mr Chan posited that the existing international rules and norms need to be updated to reflect the evolution of the global landscape. Without an effective rules-based system, a small country like Singapore may potentially become powerless over time.

Given the challenging circumstances when global mechanism is ineffective, many countries have opted for the second-best solution: forming smaller “coalition of the willing” or “minilaterals” of willing participants to address issues like digital innovation, clean energy, and new technologies. While not perfect, Mr Chan is cautiously optimistic that this approach would keep progress moving forward amid the breakdown in global rules, as more coalitions may form over time, creating a bandwagon effect which will lead to broader involvement.

Mr Chan highlighted that in times of conflict and dynamic landscape of global politics, countries that can “breach such divides” and broker agreements “will have their own value”. Such a position would be especially relevant to Singapore, particularly in the context of territorial disputes within the South China Sea involving fellow member states of ASEAN, and China.

However, for this to work, Singapore as a broker must maintain its neutrality and project a credible international leadership, for which domestic stability is essential. Mr Chan noted that it is therefore important for Singapore to view conflicts with an objective lens. Specifically, with the racial and religious complexity of the Israel-Hamas conflict and its emotional resonance in Singapore’s society, Singaporeans must look beyond the emotional element and focus their energy on productive efforts such as providing humanitarian assistance. Mr Chan added that the introduction of smartphones and social media platforms over the past two decades has accelerated the spread of information, such that “anyone with a handphone will be confronted with images [of the conflict] up close and personal[ly]” may feel strong sympathies. However, he cautioned against “trying to adjudicate who is right and who is wrong” as the conflict is historically multifaceted and deeply complex, making neutrality the best option for Singapore.

Should Singapore maintain its neutrality and encourage peaceful resolution between the parties involved, it would not only result in peaceful relations but also allow Singapore to stand out as a country with the ability to broker and settle important international disputes.

Building Singapore’s Value Proposition and Relevance

Given the changing landscape of global politics over the past few years, Singapore would need to stay relevant on the international stage by adding value to its relationships with other countries. Mr Chan noted that “if we are no longer relevant, then the consequences for us are quite dire. First, we are going into the dustbin of history quite [quickly]. Small, irrelevant countries are usually the first ones to go into the dustbin of history. But if we are relevant, if we are nimble, then I think we have every chance, every opportunity to defy the odds of history.”

While answering questions about Singapore and China’s long-standing relationship, Mr Chan brought up examples of how Singapore could add value to such partnerships in the long-term. Singapore could make its resources useful for collaboration with China by “keep[ing] ourselves close to the ground to understand the perspective of the Chinese” and how they envisage their next stages of growth. He also noted that Singapore would have to actively seek out territories in China that could benefit from Singaporean technical expertise and offer its expertise in areas such as finance and wealth management as “the Chinese financial system [goes] to the next phase of development” and more enterprises in China seek global expansion.

Additionally, Singapore can also “value-add” by becoming an interlocutor and connector between the different South-East Asian countries in the region. Plans for Singapore’s University of the Arts have already been put in place, and the minister spoke of his hopes that the university would be able to “bring together the ASEAN cultural committee in Southeast Asia”. Given that Singapore’s location and demographics have allowed it to straddle both East Asian and Western culture, the university could be a place where both these identities are integrated to create new cultural and artistic ideas. However, Mr Chan emphasised that Singapore cannot simply draw from its heritage and community, but must go further in encouraging innovation and creation at this university for Singapore to truly set itself apart as a home to a distinct South-East Asian identity. By encouraging the discovery of such brand-new artistic pursuits, Singapore would be able to “create such value propositions” that other countries would “find us an interesting proposition to work with”.

Mr Chan also expressed his desire to see solutions in the field of sustainability that would break new ground, given his worries that simply reiterating platitudes may not solve pressing threats to Singapore, nor set it apart as a technological force to reckon with. Instead, he emphasised the “tremendous opportunities” that lay inside of Singapore’s own boundaries, encouraging students to look at methods that would reduce energy wastage in the import, management and generation of clean energy within the country. By experimenting with new technologies, he believes that Singapore will be able to “make a quantum leap” in the field of sustainability, setting the stage for other countries to follow. These solutions could allow Singapore to “bring different ideas together, and transcend those ideas to create new ones”. This would enable Singapore to become a country that “draws talent and capital from across the world”, and cement the country as a dynamic global partner.

Conclusion

Mr Chan ended his talk by emphasising that Singaporeans should not take the country’s relevance and international reputation for granted. Instead, Singapore must do its best to help tackle global issues by ensuring its workforce is skilled in the areas of technology, data, and finance. With such bodies of knowledge, Singapore would stand a much better chance of maintaining its position in global affairs.