Photo credit: Institute of Policy Studies

Defying the odds and achieving the unexpected — in short, reinventing our destiny as a small state — has been a hallmark of modern Singapore’s success under the leadership of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Guided by the late Mr Lee’s vision, Singapore has beaten the odds as a small nation-state and successfully shaped itself as a competitive player on the global stage. However, modern Singapore now faces new challenges, with increasing global geo-political tensions and economic fragmentation. Once again, questions have been raised about the vulnerability and survivability of small states like Singapore.

To mark the 100th birth anniversary of the nation’s first prime minister, the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) of the National University of Singapore (NUS), jointly organised the “Reinventing Destiny” conference on 14 August, 2023.

While the conference took inspiration from Mr Lee’s legacy, its focus was to encourage a forward looking discussion on issues critical to the future survival and success of small states like Singapore.

“We have gathered distinguished speakers from Singapore and overseas to discuss how global and domestic issues will shape and influence Singapore’s future. We look forward to their diverse perspectives, depth of knowledge and experience as we engage them in robust debates on these important matters.”
Professor Chan Heng Chee, representing LKYCIC on the organising team

In his opening remarks, IPS Director Mr Janadas Devan spoke about Singapore’s changing identity amidst global geopolitical uncertainty. Although the country has built its name as a successful city-state, current circumstances would force Singapore to bravely reinvent itself to remain successful in the future. Hence, “Reinventing Destiny” was chosen as the conference’s theme.

“It is not to celebrate our past. It is in recognition of our fate: We are small so we can never be cocksure about our future. But we also know Singapore cannot exist without being defiant — not hubris, which means overweening pride, but let’s say ‘boldness’.” IPS Director Mr Janadas Devan

Panel I — 21st Century Economic Transition

The first panel focusing on the 21st Century Economic Transition was moderated by Professor Danny Quah, Dean & Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Professor Lawrence H. Summers, President Emeritus & Charles W. Eliot University Professor, Harvard University and Former United States Secretary of the Treasury, opened with his views on the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and how he believed that his determination and foresight helped build Singapore into the successful country it is today.

Ms Jessica Tan, Group Executive , Director & Group Co-Chief Executive Officer, Ping An, then spoke about Singapore’s ambition and how its small size has not prevented it from competing globally on the international stage when it comes to technology, healthcare and education.

Professor Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development, University of Oxford, spoke on the open policy position Singapore has taken as a small state. He also stated that the country’s commitment to being a friend to the world will be further challenged as geopolitical uncertainties worsen.

Finally, Mr Piyush Gupta, Group Chief Executive Officer, DBS Bank Ltd, shared that in order to remain successful, Singapore would need to double down on globalisation, while embracing new trends such as digitalisation.

During the Q&A session, questions were raised on US-China relations and how other countries should position themselves amidst the conflict as well as how global geopolitical and security conflicts would affect businesses. With regards to the US-China conflicts, Prof Summers cautioned against aligning oneself with either country, while Mr Gupta posited that there is a role for an interlocutor between the two superpowers, which perhaps Singapore could play.

Photo credit: Institute of Policy Studies

Panel II — The Small State in a Turbulent World

The second panel focusing on The Small State in a Turbulent World was moderated by Ms Zuraidah Ibrahim, Executive Managing Editor at South China Morning Post.

The Hon Dr Kevin Rudd AC, Australian Ambassador to the United States of America and 26th Prime Minister of Australia, began by speaking on international cooperation when it comes to US-China tensions. He focused on the concept of maintaining strategic equilibrium and deterrence to keep our current world order.

Professor Chan Heng Chee from the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities and Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke on what Singapore’s strategy should be in the context of these global tensions. She highlighted the need for the country to have a voice and be heard on international platforms, as well as the importance of working to strengthen ASEAN as a regional bloc.

Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, he concentrated on three factors countries should focus on when dealing with US-China tensions and other geopolitical conflicts: Having a sense of perspective, forming a belief in a country’s own agency, as well as focusing on the primacy of politics in addition to technocratic competence.

During the Q&A session, Ms Zuraidah started by asking the effect of Singapore’s policy of being more careful of criticising China as compared to the US. In response, Prof Chan explained that the method of confronting China should be different from the US because of the varying cultural practices and political systems that have shaped both countries, while all speakers agreed that countries should not be afraid to call out both the US and China on matters they disagreed with.

The panellists also discussed non-Western representation in international organisations, and the difference between having a say in global rule-making and unilaterally changing these rules, especially when it comes to China.

Photo credit: Institute of Policy Studies

Panel III — Governance of a City-State 

The third panel focusing on the Governance of a City-State was moderated by Professor Tan Tai Yong, President of the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Mr. Peter Ho, Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, began by outlining the inherent challenges faced by a city-state like Singapore. He spoke of the importance of enhancing Singapore’s resilience and discussed the idea of embracing new approaches despite risks, eventually building Singapore into a global hub like Venice during the Renaissance.

Professor Cheong Koon Hean, Chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, identified four key drivers of change. She expanded on six shifts in urban governance that would be needed for Singapore to navigate urban complexities going forward. These included reviewing our urban planning process and priorities, harnessing  technology and AI for effective urban governance, pushing for resource innovations, adopting a regenerative approach to development, facilitating a ‘net-zero’ transition and developing transformational partnerships with stakeholders.

Professor Wu Weiping, Professor of Urban Planning & Director of Urban Planning Programs, Graduate School of Architecture, of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, then discussed Singapore’s unique geographical and economic position. She highlighted the possibility for Singapore to not just act as a nexus for the East and West, but also the Global North and South, and a leader in urban governance.

The subsequent Q&A session touched upon Singapore’s ageing population and the role of migration as a potential countermeasure. Professor Wu Weiping noted the significant role migration can play in a city-state’s economy, pointing out the potential rejuvenating effects of a diverse population. Professor Cheong Koon Hean added to this by mentioning the importance of the right pacing and the integration process as important elements for  migrant transitions. Wrapping up the discussion, Mr Peter Ho commented on the complexities of migration as a politically charged topic, emphasising the need for discussions on cultural compatibility and the assimilation of migrants.

Photo credit: Institute of Policy Studies

Dialogue with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong

The Conference closed with a dialogue session with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mr Lawrence Wong, moderated by Dr Fareed Zakaria , Host of Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN and a Columnist at The Washington Post. The dialogue session covered several pressing issues of our time, and which Singapore has been facing.

Mr Lawrence Wong began by outlining broad geopolitical shifts that Singapore would have to contend with, including changing globalisation and trade relations that have more to do with geopolitical alignment than economic logic, as well as the effect of the intense US-China competition on our region.

Dr Zakaria started with questions on whether Singapore’s multi-ethnic society might be threatened by tribalism and whether ethnic integration policies might be challenged by immigrants in the country. Mr Wong replied that Singapore’s racial harmony would always be threatened, and that building up a strong Singaporean identity would be essential. He also emphasised Singapore’s culture of compromise, and assured that the current policies are still necessary to facilitate cohesion between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans.

They also discussed the recent political scandals, and whether the People’s Action Party (PAP) would be able to clean up their reputation before the next election. When pressed on what Mr Wong learned from the scandals, Mr Wong said that he learned equanimity when mistakes are made, and to “not let (praise) go to (our) heads”.

Dr Zakaria also asked Mr Wong’s opinion on China’s aggressive state-oriented policies as well as his views on China’s view of Taiwan and its presence in the South China Sea. Mr Wong posited that China’s business-related policies might have to involve more ground-up discussions, though it would ultimately be up to China’s discernment. As for the issue of Taiwan, Mr Wong emphasised that Singapore continues to stand by its One-China policy, and cautioned against the issue being portrayed as an ideological conflict.

Finally, questions from the audience included discussions on Singapore’s stance on Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee crisis, whether current policies for work pass holders are keeping migrant workers marginalised and how the PAP can maintain trust among Singaporeans.

Photo credit: Institute of Policy Studies

Closing Remarks

Closing the conference, Professor Chan Heng Chee shared on why the conference was decided to be not one which simply goes over the legacy of late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but one which discusses what Singapore should be beyond its 58-year history. Professor Chan also fondly recalled two specific interactions with Mr Lee Kuan Yew during her tenure as Ambassador to the United States. She highlighted Mr Lee’s consistent foresight and approach to life, even in his later years. She reminded us to not dwell on his legacy and faults but to look ahead towards Singapore’s future.

Photo credit: Institute of Policy Studies
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