Singapore Perspectives 2019 was held on 28 January against the backdrop of a dramatically-altered post-Cold War period driven by escalating tensions between the US and China, growing uncertainties over the costs and benefits of globalisation, deepening nationalist sentiments, entangled networks of economic, information and people exchange, and sweeping technological disruptions — issues that can result in both cooperation and friction on a global scale.
What are the implications for Singapore and Southeast Asia and how should countries respond to these geopolitical, economic and technological challenges? These were the questions that distinguished speakers sought to address across four panel sessions at the annual flagship conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at NUS, themed “Singapore.World”.
“With the global centre of gravity shifting to Asia, we can pursue what has been called a Global-Asia strategy, with Singapore serving as a gateway to the world for Asia and a gateway to Asia for the world — reprising our historic entrepôt or intermediation role but on a vaster, more complicated, more interdependent stage,” said IPS Director Mr Janadas Devan in his opening address at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre.
Kicking off the first panel, NUS Law Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, engaged in a lively discussion with Visiting Scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo and Chairman of the East Asian Institute Professor Wang Gungwu on the prolonged trade war between the US and China and their competing development models for the region.
“The most important development of 2018 was the paradigm change in the nature of US-China relations…The Americans now believe that the era of cooperation with China is over and the two countries have entered a new era of competition. The competition is not just in trade but also in technology, military power and global influence,” said Prof Koh.
He added that an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world means that some of the most pressing challenges can only be solved through international cooperation and multilateral institutions, and that this is being threatened by the rise of right wing populists in the West. “My message to you is we must not let them prevail,” Prof Koh urged the audience.
Prof Wang said that the members of ASEAN — which he dubbed “one of the most remarkable stories of our time” — know that it is more crucial than ever to be united and not allow external forces to create dangerous divisions. “No one is certain how the threats to peace and prosperity can be eliminated. Mere regular meetings between ASEAN and its partner states may not be enough if either China or the US insists that ASEAN has to decide which side it supports,” he warned, adding that Singapore would need to find new ways to perform its dual roles.
Mr Yeo agreed that ASEAN’s role as a “buffer from the cold winds of superpower rivalry” is essential. ASEAN’s strategy to remain neutral is, however, a dynamic equilibrium, which requires it to lean a little towards one direction or another in order to maintain overall balance. “Both sides are preparing for war. They have to. But war will be madness because each has the capability to annihilate the other, and much of the world as collateral damage…We are therefore living in dangerous times and small countries like ours have to be very alert,” he emphasised.
However, Mr Yeo added that it is not just the external environment that drives Singapore’s future. “Though Singapore may be a very small city-state, if you look at our cultural genome, we have a very big lead…It’s always difficult to manage this diversity in our genome, so the preference is always to simplify, reduce it…but it would be suicide. It is because of our genome that we have this resilience and this ability to adapt to a range of possible futures…We must allow separate identities to thrive but with one critical additional requirement, which is that each must open his mind and heart to others, and to see good in them. To be Singaporean is to become bigger than whom we were originally.”
Panel II centered on the implications for Singapore — a country plugged into the global supply chain and which has benefited from an open trading system — amid increasing political and economic competition between US and China. Mr Gabriel Lim, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Communications and Information; Mr Chng Kai Fong, Managing Director of the Economic Development Board; and Mr Lee Chee Koon, President and Group CEO of CapitaLand also pondered how Singapore could nurture a cosmopolitan mindset in its workforce and encourage Singaporeans to venture beyond the shores for learning and business opportunities.
The third panel session saw Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NUS Trustee and founding IPS Director; Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute at NUS and former diplomat; and Dr Marty Natalegawa, member of the United Nations Secretary-General's High Level Advisory Board on Mediation and former Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs focus on the ability of ASEAN member states to promote a sense of community and shared interests in the coming years.
Prof Chan said that increased disruption means that it will not be business as usual for Southeast Asia. “The disruption doesn’t only come from external forces, such as China and globalisation. It is also from within because Southeast Asia is a region of heterogeneous societies with great diversity…it is a place of rising nationalisms, it is a place of creeping protectionism, and a place that is coping with globalisation, and above all, a region of rising expectations and a growing middle class,” she elaborated.
Mr Kausikan opined that Singapore needs to leverage its differences to be extraordinary or risk being irrelevant, even though this will not make the country universally loved. While he believes that ASEAN should remain central to Singapore’s foreign policy, he cautioned against overstating its benefits. “There are things that ASEAN can do, and do very well, and there are some things that ASEAN has limitations in what it will be able to do. And we should never lose sight of that fact…It would be dangerous for Singapore and Singaporeans to confuse a very useful and vital tool for some kind of magic nostrum that cures everything,” he said.
A closing dialogue with Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan highlighted the intensifying global technological contest, which has raised the stakes for all players.
“Even if the US and China manage to settle their trade disputes — which Singapore earnestly hopes for — things will not be hunky-dory. Because of the pervasiveness of technology, we expect this strategic contest to be waged in other arenas — defence, energy, cybersecurity, and outer space,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
So what is a small country like Singapore to do in this brave new world? Dr Balakrishnan said that Singapore’s foreign policy principles remain as salient today as they were in 1965 — keeping its doors open, fortifying the multilateral system and contributing actively to shaping new norms to govern the global commons, and diversifying partnerships to capitalise on opportunities. “Since independence, Singapore has relied on our people’s ingenuity and tenacity to survive. The times we live in require us to double down on these qualities. If we do not ride the technology wave, we will sink under it,” he said.
Dr Balakrishnan also sought the understanding of citizens that from time to time, the country would need to stand its ground. “We reserve the right to say ‘no’ to our neighbours, ‘no’ to the superpowers, if the request is unreasonable or contradicts international law…It is actually the safer, indeed the only course of action that a small little red dot like us can pursue,” he concluded.
The annual Singapore Perspectives conference, the largest to date, was attended by more than 1,200 policymakers and academics, as well as leaders from both the private and public sectors.