Today, the ninth day of the eight month of the year two-thousand and sixteen, Singapore celebrates its 51st anniversary since independence in 1965.
This year’s theme for the National Day Parade (NDP) was ‘Building our Singapore of Tomorrow’. The theme could not be more apt. Just last year, we celebrated our golden jubilee. As we take our 51st step, it is timely to look at how much further can we go – what kind of a Singapore can we create? What kind of a Singapore will we create? To what extent of our potential will we realise?
The future is filled with potential – there are limitless possibilities. Many of us dream of a more clean and green Singapore – with electric cars, super-efficient and reliable public buses and trains, beautiful parks and waterways for our families and loved ones to play and bask in. Many of us dream of a more cohesive and inclusive society, friendly neighbors and loving friends of all races and religions and abilities celebrating each and every step of our life. Technological advances can almost be taken for granted, the speed at which mankind has harnessed and improved technology in the past 200 years since the industrial revolution is unprecedented – the acceleration has been exponential indeed.
Amidst this jubilant atmosphere and the limitless possibilities, it is necessary that we take a good look at the challenges that we face. What are the challenges, domestic and foreign, that can impede our progress towards the future we all anticipate? How can we, as a small nation in the Malay Archipelago (which in turn lies between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea), position and maneuvre ourselves amidst the ambitions of the superpowers and superpower-wannabes? In this era, we have to be cautious of not just state actors, but also non-state actors as well. Political activists, as seen in the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution in 2014, where students paralysed political and economic activity, have unprecedented power with the proliferation of social media. The influence of radical religion has also been on the rise, aided with the help of social media and amplified by poor governance in many areas.
The list of challenges that can come in our way will be too long for a blog post (indeed, they are infinite). I will list 2 that I think are most salient at this point in time and will require the most urgent of our attention.
One, the threat of radical religion. The Islamic State is more powerful than ever in terms of its presence in the Malay Archipelago. There were so many radicalised Southeast Asians from Indonesia, Malaysia and even Singapore that went to fight for ISIS such that ISIS created one brigade just for them (the Katibah Nusantara) in 2014. Just 2 years later, ISIS have their sights set on Southeast Asia. The Philippine island of Mindanao looks set to be most suitable, the ongoing Moro conflict (since 1969) between the ‘bullied’ Muslims and the ‘bullying’ Catholics set the best context for radicalised Muslims to rally behind a different ‘government’. To add fuel to the fire, the Muslims of Mindanao have been campaigning for an independent Mindanao since forever.
Not just the Philippines, the other Muslim-majority territories of Indonesia and Malaysia are prime targets as well. Extremist groups have been operating in these countries for a long time (say Jemaah Islamiyah). Recent attacks in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur by ISIS highlights the progress ISIS has been gaining in these areas. Just a few months back, ISIS launched a newspaper aimed at the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim population, named Al Fatihin (The Conqueror in Arabic). The language used is noteworthy – Bahasa Indonesia. It signals the attention ISIS is directing towards its recruitment efforts in Malaysia and Indonesia (not to forget Singapore is one of the countries where the newspaper is supposed to be circulating, of course our Government has already banned it and gazetted it under the Undesirable Publications Act).
Several factors in Southeast Asia makes it a prime hotspot for ISIS to recruit and consolidate their base here. The most noteworthy is the lack of political stability. In Malaysia, the Prime Minister is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. At the same time, politics are deeply intertwined with race and religion, leading to religious fanatics as seen in parties such as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. In the Philippines, the inability of the Government to make lasting peace in Mindanao is one of the Phillipines’ greatest failure. Let us also remember that the Thai south has a history of Muslim v.s. Buddhist violence.
Second, the geography of Southeast Asian countries make it difficult for the Government to keep a close rein on individual extremist activities, especially with the proliferation of the Internet and self-radicalisation. There exists too many rural areas in Malaysia, Indonesia and Phillipines (think – Kalimantan). The poor surveillance and control of rural areas allow extremists time and space to consolidate strength and train themselves. At the same time, due to advances in technology and the close proximity of Southeast Asian countries, Singapore is vulnerable to attacks from neighboring countries. On 5 August 2016, it was revealed that 6 Indonesian extremists tried to launch a rocket to bomb Singapore’s Marina Bay financial district from Batam. Luckily, the plot was foiled. This incident reminds Singaporeans of the danger that Singapore faces. Attacks by non-state actors can come from a neighboring state of which Singapore is friendly towards. How can Singapore protect herself from such attacks? Closer coordination between security agencies of all countries is definitely needed. At the same time, how much closer can these cooperation get? Are all of our neighboring countries willing to share information about their own citizens with us? How willing are Singaporeans willing to share their information with foreign security agencies? Other than Indonesia, it will be interesting to note that rockets can hit Singapore even from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam… the list goes on, in fact, the rocket does not even have to be in Southeast Asia to hit Singapore. How ready are we?
Indeed, Singapore is one of the most desirable targets of attack for many terrorist organisations. We have positioned ourselves as one of the world’s safest city – any terrorist organisation that successfully strikes us will have a huge trophy to claim. Singapore, being a close ally of the USA and Israel definitely does not gain us any brownie points with the terrorists, successfully landing a strike on us will only help any terrorist organisations to gain respect and influence amongst the Muslim population that still denounce Israel as a legitimate state
The threat of radical religion must not be taken lightly. Singapore has taken many steps to ensure we do not falter as a people when a successful attack does materialise. While many policies are in place, what about the resilience of our people? Will we be able to bounce back as one people? Determined and ready to protect and preserve our way of life? Make no mistake – the terrorists and determined to tear our society apart, sow discord and create tension. As a people with many differences (and also many similarities), will we triumph over these evil-doers?
From being a little red dot to a ‘nose-booger’ nation, Singapore has come a long way. As one of the four Asian Tigers, our economic growth has been on the uptrend ever since independence – defying what everyone thought would happen to Singapore post-separation (sorry Tunku, you were proved wrong! boohoo!)
Now, on the back of tighter labor markets, and the fourth industrial revolution finally dawning upon us. Robots and technology are replacing jobs – more so than ever. As an economy overly dependent on external trade, the global economy is increasingly sluggish as well with China’s growth slowing. The Government’s efforts to boost productivity in our companies have been showing lacklustre results. Our economic growth for the past 2 years suggests our economy is currently experiencing a host of structural challenges. Thankfully, many new and innovative policies are being introduced – the most notable of all, is the SkillsFuture initiative. All Singaporeans are given a sum of money in which they could use to learn a new skill – in any and every field. The future economy seems to be one where those with the most skills thrives.
At the same time, the world economy is facing a multitude of uncertainties. Will Brexit signal to ASEAN countries the failings of an ever-closer union of countries? How will this impact the economic goals of ASEAN and its potential benefits to Singapore? A common market of more than 500 million people that encourages more investment into the region? Closer economic cooperation and interdependence between ASEAN countries?
How will the imminent elections in the USA affect the recently-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership? Will the failure by the new President of the USA to endorse it affect Singapore’s economic outlook? What about China’s One-Belt-One-Road initiative, as Singapore is not a partner, will potential investors be tempted away?
While the Government has put in place new policies, how will Singaporeans rise up to the challenge? Perhaps more than ever before, we need a rugged populace capable of and willing to get their hands dirty and be willing to persevere and go through tough times together. Will the newer generation (like mine) be able to do that? Or will we behave like voters in other older democracies such as the USA and the United Kingdom, where we vote out the incumbent leadership during tough times, hoping newer leadership will miraculously bring us out of the quagmire (even though the incumbent one can offer better governance).
The Need for a Singaporean Identity
How then can we overcome these obstacles and progress ahead as a nation? If these challenges are wars to be won, then we will need a much stronger Singaporean Identity as our weapon and shield of choice.
What is identity? The word ‘identity’ comes from the Latin word ‘idem’ – meaning the quality of being the same. A national identity must be built upon values. A strong Singaporean Identity will therefore require a convergence of certain key values across Singaporeans of all stratas – age groups, races, religions and incomes.
One, I think we need a rugged mindset – the ability to endure hardships and never to back down from challenges.
Two, we will need a strong sense of unity – where each and every Singaporean sees themselves as part of the same special community, inspite of our differences.
Three, we will need a strong sense of belonging – where each and every Singaporean feels included and accepted by society, where everyone feels the need to protect and preserve our way of life.
Armed and Ready
A strong Singaporean Identity will help us fend off those who threaten our way of life (e.g. terrorists) who are determined to sow discord and create tensions by playing on the superficial differences in our society. A strong sense of unity and belonging will enable us to remain as one united people, precluding the ability of terrorists to amass strength and influence within our society.
A strong Singaporean Identity will help us remain resilient during times of economic uncertainty and hardship. A rugged populace that grabs at any and every opportunity will ensure that the Singapore economy is always ready to ride the waves of the global economy whenever they come. Together with the sense of unity and belonging, we ensure that even during hard times, no one is left behind and those with more will help those with less.
As we take our 51st step into this uncertain world, deep down inside, I know we are on the right track. So long as we do not lose sight of our shared future, we will make it. Just like how we did it 50 years ago.