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3-on-3 with Cherian George: Singapore’s Future

02 Jul 3-on-3 with Cherian George: Singapore’s Future

As the Republic turns 50 years old, questions have arisen on whether Singapore is well-equipped to adapt to emerging challenges both at home and abroad. We spoke to Dr. Cherian George, Associate Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, on his views on the changing political and social landscape in Singapore at this historic juncture.

Dr. George spoke on a panel discussion at the SIIA’s Future50 (F50) event, “Singapore Society and Emerging Challenges” on 25 June 2015. The panel was the final instalment of our F50 public lecture series, a program which examines the future of Singapore in the context of Asia and the world.

Q. How do you think the Internet will continue to transform Singapore’s press and society at-large?

Dr. George: The thing about the Internet is, is that it has no prior censorship. In other words, nobody needs any permission to get online, and say whatever they want to say or post whatever they want to post; and this of course has great advantages as well as disadvantages. What it does to Singapore’s political culture though is that I think it makes people far more expressive, and take for granted that they have a certain right to express themselves. This in turn has lead Singapore’s political culture to be more contentious; it has put pressure on the press to be more bottom-up as well as top-down just as it traditionally has been. And I think of course this puts pressure on the government to respond very much in real time.

Q. What impact does the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew have on the future of Singapore’s political scene?

Dr. George:Well I think Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, in a way, was a bit of an anticlimax. It has been anticipated for many many years. And I think for at least the last 3 to 5 years, his imprint on the day-to-day management on Singapore wasn’t really perceptible. He was, of course, known as the founder of modern Singapore, but he had already kind of faded away from the scene in the last few years. So I think all the predictions about his passing leading to major changes in Singapore were probably overstated. Instead, in the short term, of course, what we have seen in the immediate aftermath of his death, an extremely emotional period of mourning, was a sense of nostalgia, a sense of gratitude amongst most Singaporeans for how far we’ve come, and a sense of a need to self reflect; whether this has any impact on Singapore’s politics going forward is very difficult to say.

Q. What is one thing that Singapore needs to do in order to improve to become an international hub for the region, ASEAN in particular?

Dr. George: I think, at this moment, Singapore is in a rather awkward period in its life. Traditionally, we’ve been extremely open to people and ideas from all over the world. Our very being as a crossroads for the last 700 years of Singapore history; we have been a crossroads. This has, I think, been eroded; that culture has been eroded just over the last few years when for the first time, you see native-born Singaporeans resistant to the idea of being surrounded by foreigners. This has taken on, sometimes, an ugly tone. There is a certain xenophobia creeping in, which is of course is not in keeping with the idea of a cosmopolitan international hub.

I think this is probably the one thing, the culture of the people, that needs to be rethought if we are to reclaim what I believe is deep within the Singapore gene, which is to be an international hub. And I think we need to be far more open to differences in our midst: differences amongst Singaporeans and differences between Singaporeans and foreigners. Of course, the government made mistakes in its immigration policy, and I think that is the source of a lot of the unhappiness that we see around us today. But these policy mistakes should not be taken out on visitors, workers, expatriates and so on, who like Singaporeans are just trying to do the best they can, raise money for their families and so on.

For more information on our F50 events and to download the F50 report, visit