Today, the future preoccupies us as never before. Where once there were dodgy crystal balls and seers, there are now computer simulations and futurologists who use technology, social science and other sorts of expertise to predict tomorrow.
And, as this is our jubilee year, it seems fitting to look ahead. Speculation is also to be expected, after the passing in March of our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, a historical landmark.
(Related: Top corporate figures pay tribute to the nation’s founding father.)
So, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Singapore’s oldest think-tank, organised talks by international and Singapore-based experts and commissioned a report to consider the next 50 years. Key issues were examined, such as the rise of China and the role of the US, opportunities for growth in Asean, and the kind of society that is evolving in Singapore.
And the report offers many reasons to be optimistic. Even if there are considerable challenges ahead, a strong foundation has been built. But let’s look at the future through a less straightforward lens.
Bokeh is a Japanese term that suggests the beauty in things seen off-focus, rather than sharp and detailed. Done right, such images surprise with soft light and a blurry play of colours. The method allows playful questioning about what should be the proper subject of focus. Now, apply bokeh to Singapore’s future.
I once did that, while sipping cold prosecco from a champagne flute made of Venetian glass that had ornate cuttings in the crystal, as well as woven threads of colour. Rather out of date these days, but with such interesting, kaleidoscopic facets and overlays.
To see Singapore through Venetian glass is not new. One early comparison between Venice and Singapore was drawn back in 1988 by former foreign affairs minister George Yeo, who was then just about to enter politics. Today, our national curriculum teaches schoolchildren about the Republic of Venice.
In the 14th century, the tiny city-state controlled trade across the Mediterranean and was the region’s largest financial centre. But it was not Venice at its zenith that caught my eye in that coloured-glass moment. It was this: What if Singapore fades, not into a “swamp” that the late Mr Lee warned against, but, into a handsome backwater like Venice is today?
In place of the lagoon and gondolas, there would be our Marina Barrage and bumboats. Our hotels and museums might do well with the influx of tourists. Like their Venetian counterparts, our cafes would serve up coffee, albeit in kopitiam cups and not espresso demitasses. Plates of chilli or pepper crabs would be our bacala (dried salted cod).
This is not the current official plan to be the global hub in Asia – a kind of Manhattan of the region, with all the dynamism that implies. Nothing obviously unpleasant or dystopian about that. Being Venice might even seem a dream.
But such an idea runs counter to how most of us in Singapore think, because most of us are futurists of a kind. Europeans, too, believed in the future after WWI, when their old world was not only broken but actively rejected by avant garde thinkers.
Many of the artistic, literary and political movements of that era emphasised speed, technology and rapid change – arguing even for radical and violent methods to make the future happen. Except for that last part, this description of a futurist society might well describe Singapore. But, when most of us think about the future, it is not utopian. Rather, we worry. So, when we consider Venice, the Singapore futurist would be struck by parallels for potential dangers.
The Venetian economy was hit when trade routes changed. The same might impact Singapore’s port. If and when climate change makes the Arctic navigable year round, then shipping from Europe to China can bypass Singapore, saving 11 days.
Venice is also sinking, and the waters of its lagoon are rising with climate change. Already, St Marks Square gets flooded. Even more telling, Venice records an extremely low birth rate. Studies suggest that there might be no more full-time, native-born inhabitants by 2030, and a mock funeral for the city was held when its local population fell below 60,000. So, not only is Venice sinking, it is also shrinking.
Again, this will make alarm bells ring for Singapore. Our birth rate is even lower than Venice’s. Our reclaimed coastline is safe for now, but our lowlying island must worry about climate change and sea-level rise in the longer term.
But most fundamentally perhaps, there is the importance of optimism. How important is it for people to believe that things can be better tomorrow? What are the costs to living without hope?
While sentiment is hard to ensure, here are three things to consider.
First, invest some of your time and money in those who may need a boost in hope. One good friend, Euleen Goh, the former CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Singapore, has given much time to the Northlight School. The school aims to help kids who have struggled and are in danger of dropping out.
The importance of such efforts goes beyond the dollar. In the book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the reason Venice fell was the rich-poor gap and increasing obstacles in social mobility. In its earlier years, Venice practised a system of commenda partnerships, where capital-poor sailors and rich elites shared profits from voyages.
Later, the elites created an “extractive state”, so that they benefited much more than the rest of society. The authors argue that this gap between the rich and the poor, and the lack of hope among the poor to improve their lives, led to the downfall.
Second, take the time to learn a craft. Try something hard and unglamorous. One day, if Singapore’s fortunes fail, such fortitude will be needed. If you choose cooking, do not pick a fancy school but apprentice yourself to that old grumpy aunt or even a professional kitchen.
For inspiration, flip through Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. Written by former New Yorker editor Bill Buford, it has insight and humour but also a lot about the thick skin and change of attitude it takes for a well-educated professional to undertake manual work.
For me, I might learn to sail. Right now, it may seem impractical but, if climate change accelerates beyond the current estimates, this could be a useful skill to have.
Third, own something made of Venetian glass. Much of it is just tourist junk and not even made in Venice. But there are real craftsmen in Murano, and there’s a system of certificates and stickers to help you find genuine handblown glass. Ideally, buy your item in Venice. Pick a day when the sky is blue, the water not too high and the city not sinking under the weight of too many tourists. As the sun sets into the lagoon, gleaming across the water, drink a toast to Venice.
Then raise another glass – and your hopes – for the city-state we call home.