Singapore has much to look forward to in spite of global fragility and pessimism: Tharman


SINGAPORE – In a time of profound global fragility and contestation, there are still reasons for Singapore to be optimistic, to collaborate with others, and to emerge as an even more valued partner, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday.

In a speech spanning global and domestic affairs at the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership Lecture Series held at the Singapore Management University, Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, said the world is entering an era where different insecurities are coming together – geopolitics, energy and food, and existential insecurities such as climate change and pandemics.

Social polarisation, too, is leading to insecurities within societies.

This combination of complex and unprecedented events has led to a loss of optimism globally. In the advanced world, Pew Research survey results show that barely 27 per cent of parents expect their children to have a better future than them financially – a dramatic change from the advanced world of the 1960s and even the 1990s.

“These are not due to temporary shocks or events. They are not just due to bad events and bad actors,” he said.

“These are structural insecurities that are going to be with us for many years to come. This is not just a perfect storm…it is a perfect long storm.”

In Singapore, the only country among those surveyed where more than half of parents expected their children to do better than them, there are bases for optimism – by not only refreshing and strengthening the social compact, but also by developing deeper intrinsic capabilities for the future.

The country is starting from a position of some advantage. This is because the bottom 20 per cent of the population by income is catching up, Singapore has a higher degree of social mobility than most countries, and it has avoided the stark polarisation seen elsewhere.

“We still have the concept of ‘we’ in Singapore, not us versus them. We need to keep it that way,” said Mr Tharman.

“But we have to invest more and work harder at social mobility, and what will be critical… will be the earliest years of life, because that’s where so much of life opportunities are shaped.”

He added that while this means stepping up the scale and intensity of programmes such as KidStart, which provides support to lower-income families with young children, developing a strong social compact is not only about uplifting those at the bottom. Everyone has to move up the escalator, because it is the stagnation of the middle in many societies that has led to a loss of optimism.

Second, Singapore needs deeper intrinsic capabilities in its people. This is in addition to its already well-known ‘system strengths’ such as public health, housing and education that have helped built trust and shaped norms.


He pointed tothree such capabilities: first, depth of expertise in unconventional lines.

This will enable Singapore to be a truly innovative nation, not just one which does well in the Pisa test that measures students’ scholastic performance. The country is moving in the right direction, with discretionary school admissions becoming an important part of efforts to lessen the importance of exams.

Second, cultural breadth. Singapore society is remarkable in that it is multicultural, multi-religious and multiracial.

It is the Singapore system which preserves this, and there are two key spaces in this system: one allows each person to practice his own religion and culture. The second is a common space where everyone makes some compromises, and is not defined by race or religion.

But Singapore, said Mr Tharman, can now go further and build a third space that is in itself multicultural – where each person takes a deep interest in others’ cultures, builds deep friendships, and treats that as part of their identity. This will hold Singapore in good stead amid religious and racial tensions in the world.

“It’s not a melting pot; we don’t lose our own identities, but it enriches us. I believe we can develop this third space – keep the emotional assurance of our own cultures, but let’s develop that rich Singapore identity that includes a common space which we protect very carefully but also go further.”

To achieve this, Singapore must plough the co-curricular activity field a lot more actively in schools, by getting people from different backgrounds to train with each other and mix with each other. Singaporeans must also take conversational Malay and Chinese far more seriously, and develop a better knowledge of the region.

He cited the Erasmus programme in Europe as an example, where tertiary students and teachers spend a good amount of time in another European country as part of their university education. “We should explore the feasibility of that in Southeast Asia and possibly further afield in Asia.”

Finally, the capability to holdcivic discourse.

Singapore is becoming a more pluralistic society, but it must not be a more divisive society. This, he said, requires a culture of civic discourse – a deliberative culture where people listen, think critically, accept differences of views, and try to find common ground.

One aspect of this is the capability to discern facts from disinformation, which is a major challenge everywhere in the world. Social media, explained the Senior Minister, has unfortunately turned out to be not just democratic, but also polarising and a source of industrial-scale misinformation.

He cited the example of Finland, which has through the years been subject to extensive misinformation campaigns by Russia.

In 2014, Finland decided to systematically build into its school curriculum the ability to fact-check and discern the truth of the situation. It has since been found to be the country most resistant to fake news in Europe.


Mr Tharman also elaborated on four global insecurities which are interacting with one another.

First, the era of extraordinarily low inflation and low interest rates is over.

The higher energy and food prices the world is experiencing today, while accentuated by the Ukraine war, in fact pre-date it. For example, the world has been under-investing in both renewable and fossil fuel-based energy, and hence people will have to live with higher energy prices for some years to come.

As the world undergoes a period of stagflation and slow growth or recession, it will take some time for central banks to tame the inflation beast.

Second, the deterioration of the global commons is proceeding faster than the actions taken to mitigate them. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the growing global water crisis are all interlocking with one another.

Already, many tipping points are being crossed. The melting of the Arctic permafrost is itself releasing massive quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with considerably more warming power than carbon dioxide – which will lead to warmer surface temperatures on land and in oceans, accelerate the melt in major ice sheets, and impact coral reefs where a large amount of the ocean’s biodiversity is found.

“The tipping points are themselves tipping over other tipping points, like dominoes,” he said.

Third, the potential rollback in progress in large parts of the developing world including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, some of which were already in debt distress before Covid-19 and the Ukraine crisis.

The situation is now worse, said Mr Tharman, because of rising interest rates globally led by the US Fed and a strengthening US dollar (USD). This compounds debt difficulties particularly for countries that borrow in USD.

These countries are also the ones most affected by extreme weather events. There is a very real prospect – for the first time in decades – of famine occurring once again in the Horn of Africa.

Covid-19, too, set back education most dramatically in the developing world. Many children emerged from the pandemic without basic literacy abilities, or what the World Bank calls ‘learning poverty’. This constitutes permanent scarring in a whole generation, particularly girls and women.

Fourth, geopolitical insecurity in which Ukraine has been a ‘watershed’ whose ramifications extend beyond its borders, and could even be catastrophic.

Ukraine is also quite likely a return to a world of geopolitical contestation after an interregnum of 30 years, he said.

“We are back to a world of conflict, and within that world, the China-US relationship – which is now the most important bilateral relationship – is at its weakest point in decades. It is the end of a unipolar world but we are not yet in a multipolar equilibrium. We are still in disarray, and it will take us some years was to reach a stable multipolar world.”

The combination of higher inflation and geopolitical contestation isalso reducing the political bandwidth to tackle the big challenges of the global commons. These different interconnected, interlocking and reinforcing insecurities make this the most complex and profound set of fragilities that the world has seen in at least the last 80 years.

Mr Tharman said a new strategic relationship between the US and China is needed that is shaped by their overarching common interests – in addressing climate change, ensuring pandemic security and financial stability, and in preserving peace.

It also requires some rules of the game to avoid harmful competition and preserve resilience in supply chains, as well as to preserve self-sufficiency in certain sectors which are core to national security.

But fundamentally, he said, it requires interdependence as a world with China as part of the global market system, and integrated with the US economy, is a much safer world.

“It doesn’t assure us of peace – it would be naive to think that economic interdependence assures us of peace. But it makes conflict far less likely than a bifurcated world (of) bifurcated technologies, markets, payment systems and data. That will be a very, very troubling world prone to escalating conflict. So the US China relationship needs to find a new equilibrium.”

He concluded that countries can develop bases for optimism globally by strengthening multilateralism in practical ways, and in their own societies by strengthening the social compact.

“I’m confident that it will hold Singapore well in the years and decades to come, and I’m confident that we have what it takes to work together on this to ensure that we succeed, and remain a valued partner for others in the world.”

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