SG 52: What is a country for?

Singapore celebrates the 52nd year of independence in 2017. It looks like an arbitrary year, and it is. What is the meaning of independence, anyway? It stands for the ability for a community of people to decide what they want to do, for themselves, which in itself is no small thing, let alone for a small country at the mercy of far larger powers.

Two years ago, we celebrated independence because a half-century seemed to be a special thing. Halfway towards a century, halfway towards some kind of mental permanence, that “we exist.”

But what do we do, in the time between the half-century and the real century and beyond? Singapore as a country has not always existed in the past, and it might not always exist in the future. In the time that we have, we have the freedom to make choices. And what shall we do with that freedom?

The Singapore that exists today is the result of a disciplined will manifest in concrete reality. Leaders and followers came together, moved heaven and earth, to create the Singapore that we enjoy today. That story has been repeated ad nauseam, but must be re-stated again for every generation as a reminder of the energies involved and the sacrifices made. For the realisation of the present, we ought to sometimes acknowledge the things that were lost. When we entered into the current path, we also closed off others. Artifacts of history and nature gave way, and are still giving way in our pursuit of tomorrow. In time, we will again, mourn the things we lost. But for a little while, we enjoy the gains that we have, before we continue on.

But to continue to where? In 1972, former foreign minister and the author of the Singapore Pledge S Rajaratnam fleshed out the vision of Singapore as a world city — a city making use of global connectivity to become an urban oasis, not a urban necropolis. He foresaw the revolutions in communications — both physical and information — that Singapore could harness and as a result, flourish.

We need to embark on a fresh goal of reimagining ourselves again. Perhaps Singapore can be, “World in a City, City for the World.”

Singapore already has elements of a “World in a City.” it is a hub for Southeast Asia, with strong links to both East and South Asia. Singapore is an important node in the East-West trade routes — still playing the role that Raffles foresaw. In 2019, we will celebrate the bicenntennial anniversary of that founding. There are some links to Latin America and to Africa, and can grow stronger.

But gathering the world in Singapore will not be sufficient. For a node in a dynamic network to become important, it must not only be a hub for inward links, it must also be a major node for outward links, in a global network of nodes. In social networks, we speak of nodes with high eigenvector centrality — an important measure in network centrality. This is the foundation in Google’s initial Pagerank algorithm in figuring out how valuable websites were. Singapore and Singaporeans must thus be more engaged in the rest of the world.

In other words, Singapore and Singaporeans (wherever they are born) must continue to work for good in various parts of the world, in different ways. They can engage in rural development efforts, in poverty alleviation, or start enterprises in far-flung countries. We must remind ourselves that the definition of a Singaporean is not about the place of birth, but a choice constantly made. We are Singaporeans, with the adaptability and the knack to make ideas work wherever we are, just as the pioneers at independence did. We must now extend beyond our own horizons and work actively in the world — to address the greatest challenges — environmental degradation and human suffering.

After all, beyond the existential celebrations at SG100, what else will we be able to celebrate?