Yale-NUS College (Yale-NUS) played host to Dr Fareed Zakaria, CNN journalist and Washington Post columnist; and Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Rector of Tembusu College, who engaged in a lively discussion on politics, society and technology in the 21st century. Held on 31 October, the dialogue was part of the President’s Speaker Series organised by the College.
The session began with a talk by both speakers outlining their broad observations on the world today. Prof Koh highlighted several positive trends that he sees for the 21st century, noting, “We are living and benefitting from the three biggest growth stories of human history — the re-emergence of China and India, and the unexpected rise of Southeast Asia, or ASEAN.”
Dr Zakaria shared how globalisation and the information revolution are propelling transformations in the world, and noted that while these had brought about much success, there are also unintended consequences. “The result of globalisation and the information revolution coming together is that it has provided massive returns to capital and companies and very modest returns to labour and to workers,” he said. As such, significant parts of Western society feel somewhat dispossessed.
A dialogue session following the presentations was moderated by Dr Trisha Craig, Dean and Senior Lecturer at Yale-NUS’ Centre For International & Professional Experience.
The first topic raised by Dr Craig was protectionism, and Dr Zakaria shared his concerns on China. Citing China’s institutions and policies as examples, he said that they served as “conduits for the promotion of Chinese mercantilist power rather than genuine rule-based constitutions that are trying to create an open world economy”.
In response, Prof Koh cautioned against demonising China. He added that East Asia generally rejects protectionism because the countries know that it is a dead end, and that the countries believe in opening their economies and integrating with the world. “We’re imperfect but the trajectory in Asia is positive and moving in the right direction,” he said.
On the topic of populism, Prof Koh said that he found the US today to be very divided — between class, religious beliefs and socio-political attitudes. That, along with increasing global inequality, form part of the ammunition that has driven the rise of populism in the US and Europe, he maintained.
Agreeing with Prof Koh, Dr Zakaria further urged for openness to be protected, saying, “I feel that unless you begin to see a concerted defense of openness, the forces of restrictions, closures and obstacles will inevitably triumph.”
Speaking about ASEAN, Prof Koh shared that with Singapore assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, the regional grouping of 10 countries faced three main challenges. The first challenge was to complete the economic integration of the countries. The second challenge was to ensure that ASEAN unity remained intact, which is increasingly critical in the face of bigger stakeholders in the region — such as the US and China — who do not trust one another. He said, “We are able to play the role of convenor, neutral chairman, facilitator [at regional platforms such as East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus Three] as long as we are united and as long as we are neutral and independent.” The final challenge for ASEAN, said Prof Koh, was to embrace the new industrial revolution and to benefit from the digital economy, while taking care of those who lose their jobs.
During the question-and-answer segment, participants were eager for an opportunity to seek the panellists’ views on a range of topics. The areas of discussion included viable business models for independent media; the possibility of domestic politicians banding together to advocate their pro- or anti-globalisation stance; mandating the study of Warren Buffet’s positive teachings in schools in the US and Singapore; and Russia’s place in the 21st century.
Some 450 NUS faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the public attended the 2-hour event.