Question: “The more cosmopolitan, the more international Singapore is, the more successful.” Do you agree with this statement? Why?
The world is shrinking. High-speed internet connections and low-cost air travel have allowed individuals to seek new opportunities overseas, and allowed companies to expand internationally and cater to a more diverse set of customers. As the regional hub of South-East Asia, Singapore is poised to capitalise on the perceived disappearance of national or regional borders. A massive influx of foreign talent is beginning to exert its influence on many facets of Singaporean life, from the main professions of Law, Economics and Business, to education and even to politics, when an immigrant recently decided to join the young wing of our ruling party. In general, Singapore is indeed becoming more cosmopolitan and international. However, has it become any more successful?
I believe so.
Though, as with any phenomenon, the inherent challenges posed to our small nation-state are manifold and important, I feel that in any case, the positive contributions of globalisation to the development and progress of our small island nation far outweigh whatever negative impacts may arise, especially if our government remains rooted, yet flexible enough to take on this new trend, and if our people are willing to make certain sacrifices for both the greater good of our nation, and the individual benefit of themselves.
Before we ponder whether Singapore is on the path to success, let us first define the various terms used in the question. “Cosmopolitan” has its roots in Greek “Kosmopolites”, which means “World Citizens”. In other words, one who is cosmopolitan has a global perspective and is willing to factor in issues and their implications on an international scale. Similarly, a cosmopolitan nation is not insular. It welcomes and respects a diverse range of races and nationalities and strives to accommodate their needs. In dealing with others and policy-making, it takes into consideration international views, and is directly or indirectly influenced by them.
Success, or more specifically the success of Singapore, can be divided into several different aspects. Economic success deals with economic growth and progress, while political success deals with Singapore’s stability, sovereignty and security as a minute nation-state. Social stability deals with the satisfaction and well-being of the general public, while “spiritual success”, for want of a better word, concerns Singapore’s unique identity and Singaporeans’ sense of belonging to the nation. I believe that these few aspects are sufficient as a gauge of whether internationalism and globalisation has helped Singapore succeed, as success itself is highly abstract.
Economically, Singapore’s success has been dependent on its cosmopolitan nature since its independence. Then, it leveraged on its bilingual policy, relatively low labour and start-up cost, geographical location and capable, transparent governance to create a favourable business climate for MNCs to invest in. Now, with the advent of increased globalisation, Singapore is poised to benefit from this trend.
Though our labour costs are increasing, our sterling education system churns out large numbers of highly-skilled, multilingual graduates, providing a ready talent pool for multinational companies to tap on. Our corporate tax rates and business start-up costs are among the lowest in the region, and our superb infrastructure and core services match those of many developed countries. All these factors have led to a massive influx of foreign companies, whether multinationals or small and medium enterprises, setting up their regional headquarters in Singapore, investing billions of dollars and creating new opportunities for many in our labour force.
In addition, the process of natural selection and the non-discriminatory nature of Singapore’s business climate, as opposed to that of others in the region, ensure that only corporations whose products or services can compete with those provided by the multinationals will survive and thrive. This increases the general quality of Singaporean products and services and allows Singapore to spearhead regional development, especially in the fields of Research and Development, Banking and Finance, Law, Architecture and so on. In general, Singapore’s cosmopolitan nature was, is and will always be crucial to the economic development of our land-scarce, resource-poor nation, and there is no way it can develop otherwise.
Politically, however, the situation is slightly more complex. A political-economic concern is that when foreign talents enter the workforce, they will inevitably displace certain locals, who may feel disgruntled and frustrated. The less cosmopolitan members of the public, now deprived of their rice bowls, will tend to blame the “garment” (government) for not protecting them sufficiently. However, this argument does not hold economically, as the introduction of immigrants creates a “multiplier effect”, in which the demand for a variety of goods by the immigrants leads to more jobs created, often for locals. In addition, immigrants who are specialised in a particular field are likely, through guidance of local colleagues, to raise the standards of locals in the field, making them more employable in the future. Most importantly, as explained before, globalisation creates increased competition, which may result in short-term negative consequences, but is highly likely to bring about long-term economic progress by raising the quality of local products and services through competition. This will improve the economic situation for the nation, and, coupled with prudent policies, is likely to lead to a rise in economic indicators, including average wages.
The onus is therefore on the government to convince the electorate, through both words and actions, that the infusion of foreign talent is beneficial to both them and their country. However, I am confident that our capable and skilful government, having dealt with Singapore’s cosmopolitan nature for the past 43 years, will be able to handle this issue effectively by informing our public, which is now increasingly educated, of the benefits globalisation can bring to them, which include also the creation of jobs.
Also, much can be said of the importance of western-introduced ideals of free speech and democracy. However, to apply American or European-style political systems and attitudes to our nation without modification to suit our needs will only lead to needless misunderstanding and wasted time and opportunities. Hence, our government must be cautious and take into account the realistic situation when choosing to what extent they should accept such ideals in government. Indeed, as our Minister-mentor said, these preachers have no experience in running such a unique nation as Singapore.
Also, another possibility is that radical elements that have entered Singapore will somehow bring about civil unrest or even a revolution. This is indeed a relevant concern as the global spread of Islamic terrorism and the increasing appeal of its messages to the disenfranchised in society has resulted in all forms of extremism gaining ground. However, one must remember that it is often a state of extreme poverty or injustice that drives people to accept and believe such warped ideals, simply because they have no choice. Unlike the Iranian Empire before the Islamic Revolution, Imperial China before the 1911 Xinhai Revolution or Nationalist China before the 1949 Communist “Liberation”, our nation is currently stable and affluent, with income levels and social infrastructure surpassing many first-world nations. As long as our government maintains a harmonious and cohesive society free of dichotomy, our people will have no need to turn to such ideals when they have no concrete benefits to them. This is a topic I will discuss in further detail later. Also, our government has had experience in dealing with Communist/Barisan Sosialis elements in the years leading up to and immediately after our independence, as well as Marxist Christian/Catholic elements in 1987 and the more recent tide of Muslim militarism. This is shown in the successful foiling of the attacks on Yishun MRT station in 2002. In conclusion, this is not a serious threat to our nation.
The social and “spiritual” consequences of globalisation are the most complex and hardest to deal with. Of course, much has been said about the positive social effects of increased globalisation in Singapore. When expatriates seek employment or business opportunities in our nation, they create demand for the artistic or social entertainment that they are so familiar with at home. Similarly, well-educated, highly-paid locals who have travelled internationally or even studied abroad seek to enjoy and experience the pleasures that enthralled them so greatly overseas. Thus, you see regular performances of classical favourites like Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, as well as occasional performances by virtuoso guest soloists or orchestras of such masterworks as Brahms’ Double Concerto Op. 102 and Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. Also, pop concerts and jam sessions are organised by acclaimed modern musicians, and local and overseas theatre troupes often bring renowned plays like “Woman in Black” and “The Pickle King” to the local stage, as Singapore slowly sheds its reputation of “cultural desert”.
In addition, increased exposure to western educational and developmental attitudes is leading to a gradual acceptance of specialisation in the performing or fine arts, even from young, as an alternative and potentially lucrative possibility, producing such talents as violinist Seow Li Jun and the renowned See Ian Ike, who recently caused a furore over National Service deferment. Also, as Singaporeans are exposed to western attitudes towards artistic appreciation, and thus become more refined, they will move up the hierarchy of needs and demand artistic and aesthetic fulfilment. This will come in the form of increased interest in artistic exhibitions and in pursuing more sophisticated hobbies, as well as increased tolerance or even encouragement of subcultures and/or non-mainstream cultures. Many argue that this will create a vibrant, pulsating city that is alive, just like the metropolises of San Francisco, New York City or London.
However, one must pause to question whether it is our own metropolis we are creating. Indeed, many object that Singapore is losing its own, unique identity through reckless emulation of Western ideals and culture. For instance, Singapore fared very well in the ‘70s and ‘80s with neighbourhood coffee shops and hawker centres providing affordable, authentic warm and cool drinks and hearty local fare. However, the advent of western-style coffee chains such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean has led to their overwhelming popularity. Throngs of urbanised yuppies are now favouring these chic and cool refreshment venues, with the traditional coffee shops, a memorable symbol of the nation’s culinary heritage and national identity, relegated to the heartlands. In contrast, Hong Kong’s Cha Chaan Tengs(“tea restaurants”) and dessert houses are increasingly popular in this modern age, despite the proliferation of western-style coffee chains. They are even being marketed overseas as an aspect of “uniquely Hong Kong” lifestyle. This example alone illustrates the difference in attitudes towards local cultures and the seeming disregard for our own local culture.
Indeed, many other aspects of modern Singaporean life seem to have been merely transplanted from other societies and cultures, with Singapore losing some of its individuality. For instance, we do not have a distinctive architectural style of our own, other than those of the many races. The modern music that our youths and general public are currently exposed to is mostly imported from America, Europe and China or Taiwan. Indeed, even such a young person like me can sigh and lament that Singapore is not what it used to be in his childhood. Such places as the Equatorial Hotel, which served excellent Chinese breakfasts, Specialist’s Centre, where my optometrist, Stan Isaacs, used to be located, and my grandfather’s old shophouse-offices opposite Hockhai Building all hold fond memories for me, but all have made way for urban redevelopment. Many roads have been realigned, and I have ever wandered into a formerly familiar place to find that it is now utterly unrecognisable. Sometimes, I find that Singapore seems like just another big city now.
Even though to be cosmopolitan is indeed to be able to appreciate a diverse range of cultures in all fields, including entertainment or cuisine, what is even more important is that we are Singaporean, with a unique soul that will stay with us always even as we experience diversity. This is at best in its embryonic stage in most of the population, and without it, Singaporeans will not feel grounded to their home country. Perhaps this could be why there are still a good number of young urban professionals who decide to remain in the country where they achieved their foreign degree, citing a sense of belonging to that place. This is simply because their sense of belonging to Singapore is lacking, and the education system and society does little to inculcate it. This is one of the foremost challenges of globalisation.
In addition, there is some concern at the present moment of the erosion of traditional Confucian/Asian values of thrift, hard work, obedience to elders, respect, filial piety and so on. In their place are emerging Western progressive/liberal values of freedom of speech, independence, enjoyment of life and the right to decide your own future. Rephrased less positively, they translate to talking back to elders, not having to support elders when they are old, spending as you wish and refusing to follow the path charted out by your elders. These pose a considerable threat to our inherently Confucian, conservative society, as well as to our well-established social norms. However, I believe that the true cosmopolitan should know that in every country, including ours, there are social norms that are different from other countries’, but still must be adhered to. Also, with globalisation, we must be prepared to accommodate the minority which choose to blindly follow such attitudes. Even so, the responsibility of educating students with the correct attitudes falls with the education ministry and schools, as well as the parents, who are the most influential individuals in a child’s life.
Most pertinent, however, is the possibility of a dichotomous society brought about by the globalisation-driven structural changes in the economy and society of Singapore. The increasingly open labour market allows foreigners to occupy low to mid-level positions previously held by such segments of society as the less-educated, Chinese-educated and monolingual. Deprived of their jobs and probably their social standing as well, these people will likely have a less desirable lifestyle and feel the pinch very badly. Even though these people make up a statistical minority of the population, their numbers are still sufficiently considerable to be of concern to the nation’s general development and well-being. As Chairman Mao says, even a small spark can ignite a dry prairie, and the large gap between the haves and have nots in terms of education, job prospects and finances and therefore lifestyle, could pose social problems for our still-young nation. This is an issue that I think is still given insufficient emphasis and the country’s development will be hampered if our leaders do not take effective and immediate action to balance Singapore’s cosmopolitan nature and economic development with citizens’ and society’s general well-being.
A possible solution to this issue would be a bottom-up approach, where the government, possibly together with private service providers, provides avenues for self-improvement of the disadvantaged group, such as upgrading courses. This will allow for the disadvantaged individuals to self-improve, making them more employable in the competitive job market of today. However, the wholehearted co-operation of the individuals and the government and private sectors is required for this solution to have its intended effect. Being no policy-maker, but a mere student myself, I dare not determine conclusively its chances of success, but I believe the chances of the solution fulfilling its aims are very high. The society, thus unified, will be able to meet the challenge of globalisation in a more concerted, and hence more effective, manner.
In conclusion, the question does hold true in that the positive effects of globalisation in the economic, political and social areas will definitely benefit Singapore and her citizens greatly in the coming decades or even century. However, it must be noted that it is by no means a bed of roses as inherent political and social risks exist in such a process. Even so, cities like New York or London have managed to overcome these risks to a moderate extent, though they have had more time to learn the ropes. It remains to be seen whether our current systems of government, education and society will continue to serve us well in the future. Still, the outlook for a globalised Singapore is generally positive.