Deep Crises - the convergence of multipl ...

Deep Crises - the convergence of multiple trends at the same time

Mar 08, 2021

Singapore faces multiple large developments that are unfolding in roughly the same period of time - through the 2020s and into the 2040s. They are, in no particular order: geopolitical contestation, climate crisis, technological changes, and our own ageing population. 


Geopolitical Contestation

There is the geopolitical contestation, as major powers try to influence the world in ways amenable to their interests. China, the US and the European Union are the three main powers that have influence over large domains of life - security and economic considerations. The UK, Japan and India are influential actors but perhaps in a regional sense. For simplicity, I am leaving the latter three for now, and focusing on the former three, as their influence and pull will be felt more deeply in the time horizon (20 years ahead) I am considering. 

Climate Crisis

There is the Climate Crisis. Not just about sea level rise and vulnerability to flooding but also wider issues about our body's ability to tolerate heat - things like that could end up having subtle but greater challenges to the way we live. 

The climate crisis represents other ripple effects. Food security is one; migration and political stability might be another. This can set off dangerous political dynamics in weak states - states that have poor governmental infrastructure. Endemic corruption and coercive security apparatus can trigger resentment and lead to situations that are difficult to resolve. To be clear, there is an ambiguous causal link between climate change, migration and political instability. Nonetheless, they can exert political stress in areas where governance is already poor. Any additional stress - from climate or climate-induced migration - could lead to catastrophic outcomes. 

Technological Change

Technological disruptions are another source of uncertainty and crisis. From the experience of what we might be going through, it seems that the worst dangers of large-scale job displacement is not the likely outcome. Instead, job polarisation might be, in which the technological content of a job increases to the extent that it becomes largely the domain of a few people who will be paid high amounts, while the vast majority of people might be paid pittance to support some residual activity, while machines take the place of most human endeavours in the workplace. Still, there are a few areas in which machines will not be the main executioner of work - care work in social and health care settings might still be done by people. This is going to be a long drawn out process that will come in fits and starts, and as our education and economic systems change. Perhaps new industries will be created and people adapt and find new roles themselves, but that will take time. 

Ageing Population

The ageing population is another - and it too has several effects that we are not sure how to talk about. It is also different from the first three; this is a domestic development, and there is much more latitude to shape it, but the demographic momentum in place means that changing it is an uphill task, and will take decades to shape it substantially. There is the sheer need for healthcare, and the need to shift the health system from a pure medical, acute care kind of system to one that is more hybrid and open to social care as well. I was struck by the different factors for active longevity in the Blue Zones research programme,[1] now commercialised by Dan Buettner. Longevity was not just the result of an active lifestyle or a healthy diet, though both help tremendously. Longevity is also sort of a by-product of a close-knit community with strong social support - whether is it by belief (as in close-knit religious community or other beliefs) or if it is from ties of kinship - having families close by taking care of each other and with family as the basis of kinship. 

Geopolitical Contestations

The geopolitical tensions will also be an important source of angst for Singapore. For now, we have been successful in engaging major powers - the US, China, the European Union, and other major economies - Japan, India, UK, Australia, and others. However, much of global affairs will still revolve around the first three - US, China and the EU, and countries will find themselves having to position themselves in a way to maintain good relationships with all. The three powers all have unhealthy dynamics that are at work in their societies and political systems, and working with each has its challenges. Their conflictual interactions with each other will also cause difficulties. For instance, China's demographic challenges - a rapidly ageing population by the 2030s and intensifying - will mean that it has a limited "geopolitical window of opportunity" to pursue its global interests before having to husband resources for domestic needs.[2] An ageing population will mean increased costs of healthcare - for chronic conditions, for neuro-degenerative conditions, and also for their retirement on the whole. Coupled with a rising local government debt, the overall financial situation will be biome hard to manage for the decades to come. Its “Wolf Warrior” posture in some parts of their diplomacy is thus not a sign of strength, but of weakness, of the need to try coerce gains rather than play for mutual benefit. The European Union is already ageing. Increasing migration from Africa and the Middle East might strain socio-political dynamics, leading to a more xenophobic Europe. Internal divergence might make the union increasingly incoherent. As for the United States, political polarisation is a difficult issue - whether moderate administrations can bring the country together and commit to wholesale democratic practices would be an important question. 

All the major powers face tensions and navigating around them will become difficult as these issues press on their political leadership. The choices they make to consolidate political power domestically and regionally will matter greatly for the world. This would mean very fluid diplomatic and political relationships - countries will change their support for various powers depending on their interests and try to seek bargains and counterbalance with others on some issues. Ian Bremmer's characterisation of a G-Zero is on point as the Big 3 also negotiate with one another, passing the buck where they can, and working together when they must. 

Different Tensions for Singapore

China - Straining Multiculturalism?

The Big 3 also present various challenges to Singapore other than their geopolitical heft. China’s rising demographic challenge, the ensuing economic growth slowdown, the rising use of nationalism and the need to use more coercive tactics threatens Singapore’s multicultural identity - currently comprising a majority Chinese population with significant Indian, Malay and various other minorities. Singapore’s multiculturalism is a defining trait that marked it from Malaysia - with a constructed Malay majority. It is Singapore’s one source of pride - in the meshing of different cultures in a stable format. China’s increasing power will also mean difficult cultural questions for multiculturalism in Singapore. China will want to be seen to be influencing Chinese culture across the world, and here in Singapore, there will be voices that will want to position Singapore as being pro-China for economic gains, and as a result, unintendedly turn Singapore towards China and away from the United States and even Europe. Should this occur, this will have questions beyond just culture - this will also be a diplomatic and economic question. In addition, having the Chinese majority group demonstrate dominance in economic and cultural questions will be difficult to countenance within the framework of multiculturalism and racial equality that has been in place. Drifting towards a racial hierarchy in Singapore will undermine the founding ethos of Singapore’s independence. At the same time, Chinese cultural dominance will mean that Malaysia and Indonesia - two countries that have historical ambivalence (sometimes outright animosity)  towards people of Chinese ethnicity throughout their independent history - will have suspicions about the international stance of Singapore’s diplomacy and cast aspersions on whether Singapore would be acting as a ‘mini-China’. 

United States and Europe - Pressure under the Guise of “Rights”?

The United States and Europe pose different diplomatic issues from China, and some of these issues are not new to Singapore’s interactions with these powers. The United States and Europe are likely to pressure Singapore on issues of political rights - using the rhetoric of “human rights” and possibly, towards greater decarbonisation efforts - places where Singapore’s would prefer to move at their own pace and in their own direction. Nonetheless, Singapore will make the necessary adjustments and accommodations to these efforts. The notion of “rights” have been politicised for a long time.[3] This is not to say that the issue of “rights” is more or less severe than the challenge of Han/Chin(ese)-centrism from China; they really are just different challenges, and accepting one or the other as the organising principle for society just creates problems. The current approach - strengthening the equality of races and emphasising the nature of Singapore’s history and syncretism seems to be the current pathway - acknowledging roots but mentioning the trajectory we have taken and celebrating fusion - that seems to be the current path we are on. That there are sites of heritage celebration - the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, the Malay Heritage Centre, the Indian Heritage Centre, and the Eurasian Heritage Gallery - emphasises the nuances of our cultural evolution. Yes, our origins can be traced to various places that are now major powers and centres of economic development, but we are also different in our own way, and we must cherish what we have - together. 

Security Considerations

At the same time, Singapore’s current relations between the United States and Europe - are even more well-rounded than in China - not just economic policies but also politics and security - in the sense of how Singapore doesn’t just trade with them, but also have important military and security relations. Singapore does not have the same kind of significant military or security relation with China - Singapore’s security situation vis-a-vis in the region means that China’s security hardware just isn’t suitable for Singapore at least for now. Singapore’s military security implicity requires overmatch - surpassing the region’s military hardware by at about 1 generation or more. China’s military hardware while surely advanced, is untested, and besides, Singapore’s long standing partnership with the American military has yielded tangible benefits and intelligence - things that would be difficult to replace, which a deeper partnership with China is not likely to yield for now. Still the future could be different. The Trump presidency has shown that American politics is turbulent, prone to extremes. The Biden/Harris Administration will want to show some moderation, but the American presidency is no salve for societal polarisation - that depends on the nature of the American Right and where they want to take things. Singapore’s current middle path - relying on both and yet having the flexibility of options - Europe, other middle powers, will continue to be the main path. 

Climate Crisis 

Geopolitical Inflection - Whose Green Technologies?

This headache-inducing complexity of our geopolitical orientation is further compounded by the two other issues mentioned previously - the combination of the climate crisis and technological change will mean that there will be a geopolitical tint in all of these areas. For instance, the struggle for decarbonising economies worldwide will be accompanied by a rush of and for geopolitical influence. China, Europe and the US will all want to lead in this green industrialisation renovation - offering the renewable energy industries of their own countries/governments and offering themselves as the attractive markets of investors from their own people and from others. There will also be a race for resources necessary to support these industries; “rare-earth metals” entered the geopolitical vocabulary as China restricted exports of these resources to Japan, forcing research on substitutes and to find new mines. Bolivia could become pivotal for its lithium, an important element for batteries. As the development of various energy technologies mature, so the demand is likely to shift. Since the exact technology breakthrough is unknown, so will the resource demand. Whatever it is, the geopolitical competition to secure these resources will form part of the picture, and the ‘winner’ of these competitions will be well-placed to continue global leadership, as the chief supplier of these technologies. 

Who will be making carbon-reduced steel and cement - still the two most important industrial commodity people will need? Who will be making the wind turbines and the solar panels that will provide fossil-fuel- and carbon-free electricity for the whole world? Who will be making the green fuels for aviation and shipping? All of these are open questions, and the major powers and the companies they implicitly support will be on these mega-race to build out this greener world. 

Singapore’s Industries’ Responses?

The flipside to this perspective is how will Singapore’s industries respond? Are we going to be carbon laggards, waiting for the rest of the world to change before we do? Our current posture and reality is that we are still tied to the fossil fuel economy - based on legacy investments from the oil majors, having their large petro-plastic plants here in Singapore. Although these facilities will be here for a long time more, we will have to consider a future where plastics will be made differently using different feedstocks. We will also have to prepare for possible developments, such as how hydrogen might become the new fuel. Currently, hydrogen is made from methane, but there is another route for it, which is from electrolysis. If either processes can be made using renewable energy, then hydrogen will be made near where the water is, or near where the energy is. We do not know how these things will play out; I don’t know if we might need to have large electrolytic plants to make hydrogen - there are environmental issues to consider, such as where/how do we dump concentrated brine that is a byproduct. Should we make it by ourselves - be it through electrolysis or through methane re-formation? 

How will our oil and gas-related industries respond? Will offshore rig makers make the successful conversion to installing offshore wind turbines? What about the thousands of chemical engineers? We would need careers to shift for them. The fundamental technologies are quite different. For instance, the shift from combustion engines to electric propulsion will require less precision parts. Hundreds if not thousands of jobs might be affected. 

I am less worried about the infrastructural challenge posed by climate change - we are able to build our way out for the issues of sea level rises or more erratic rains; we have enough capabilities to protect ourselves from water shortage. If surface temperatures do rise, it will just mean new realities for the way we live, work and play. I imagine the military is already thinking about heat stress during training and how to respond to that. We will have to make it work, somehow. 

Other than heat stress, there are other larger challenges at the regional level. Food production might be affected in the region - we might see spikes in food prices in our basic staples. We might have to move away from the traditional grains and move on to others. As we develop various kinds of proteins, we might actually have more buffers there. Our multicultural fabric and openness to new things should see us being culturally adaptable. While I don’t see a wholesale change in the food crops we consume, I suspect in a climate-changed world, we will eat a wider variety of foods from a wider set of geographies than today. My worry would however, come from whether our neighbours in the region have the wherewithal to adapt - food price volatility is a marker for political instability after all, and spillover effects - migration both internal and international creating political crises - will have to be considered then. 

In the area of food there is less direct concern for Singapore. A concerted push for more self-sufficiency, and the burgeoning development of food technologies that are less resource intensive - Singapore is in a good place to take advantage of all of these developments. We will have to live with new foods. 

Technological Change

Geopolitical Inflections - Whose Platform?

The technological challenge also presents various dilemmas, inflected by geopolitics. As with the case of decarbonisation, the technologies that will change the world of work will not be developed in Singapore but by companies in either of the Big 3. The Big-3 all have different areas of strength in the world of technology, and Japan and UK are not laggards as well. Singapore is not likely to be in a position of technological superiority vis-a-vis the other powers; rather it is likely that we would be in the position of a “fast-follower” - able to recognise the emerging technological trends from these countries and able to quickly adopt them for our society. We might have a few specialist companies with “deep technologies” that can contest in some markets, and maybe become regional champions or in niches; something like Grab or Razer come to mind. Our developing bench of digital technologists would be well-placed for competitiveness in regional markets, and if we nurture a sense of adventure to less-mature markets then perhaps we can make a play there as well. 

Structure of Work

The challenge from technological change is however, not just in the origins of the countries and the platforms to adopt but also in the structure of work. With work increasing in technological content, this benefits people with a leg up in education or just general technological savviness. People who do not have the requisite skills might have difficulty accessing the crucial jobs, and ending up in other positions of lower wage. If ordinary people do not have access to the requisite technological skills, over time they might lose out, and if large segments of society are left out of these skills, then a social underclass might emerge, deeply resentful. This would then lead to chaotic politics and social disruptions. There might have to be painful choices to make for society to recognise. It is not that everyone must be a programmer or a coder; it is that people have to be aware of how technology can fit into their existing roles, so that their capabilities can be amplified. An artist might have to know about online platforms to market and showcase their work; theatre practitioners have to know about tools to perhaps, livestream their performance, or work to create new settings for their work to excite audiences, and so forth. During this COVID-19 pandemic, we were made aware of how jobs and roles can be mediated through technology, even if imperfectly. As technology allows for greater fidelity, we can also start to imagine new possibilities, but also new threats. 


It is not digital technologies alone that might give us such profound headaches. The possibly emerging new area of bio-synthesis might create a whole new biological industrial revolution - how we might use biological routes to create the materials we might need. This might mean bio-extraction of minerals, rather than the current thermodynamically energetic process of today; the bio-synthesis of carbon fuels from substrates such as sugar and carbon dioxide; bio-synthesis of the materials we need, such as cement; and so forth. As we are able to master the gene-editing technologies so that bacteria can create exactly whatever we might need, so we might have to revamp our technical systems, again. This for now though, is still highly speculative. If that were to be realised, this might mark another industrial revolution albeit coming from biological mechanisms. Again we might have the same headaches as before - which countries might be leading this race, and whose might we have to adopt? 


Living Well

Ageing is a profound development that we all have to grapple with together, because it will concern our families and the people we love. The issue is conceptually straightforward - the ageing issue requires investment into long-term healthcare for the conditions the population might experience, and we have to rely on various care modalities (how we care) rather than just on acute care in the hospitals. This means more elderly care facilities, and more care services in the community. For the rest of us, that means paying much more attention to the requirements of older people, and how they might still want to work, and play, and how to have community activities that must be multi-generational by default. This means thinking hard about job design and preventing discrimination by age; this means changing the technology tools we use so that the aged can feel engaged by them. The health aspect of it also means that there will be greater promotion of healthy lifestyles - ways to reduce the prospects of diabetes and high blood pressure throughout life, so that the other comorbidities of that are reduced. I suspect there will also be increasing emphasis on neurological health - ways to treat various forms of dementia, so that people can go on living well for as long as possible. 


This development, as the government has mentioned before, will be the funding for such needs. This is over the longer term and going to be permanent - we will have to raise taxes to fund the health and social care system for the people we love. A second issue, not often heard, is that we will have to accept more healthcare workers from other countries. We will need healthcare staff at all levels - doctors, nurses, technicians, counsellors; more and more of them will be foreigners. It is just basic math. We will not have enough people to care; we have to open our horizons and our hearts to accept them into our community. This will be the reality that we have to live with, whether we like it or not. 

There is no “easy solution” to the ageing issue - it is not an “issue” in the first place - the byproduct of improving medical science and healthcare delivery and the ensuing longevity. It is also possible to age well - the focus on diabetes and other health issues is one way to get to healthy ageing. 

Societal Change?

There is another way, but it will mean a wholesale change in society. We can turn Singapore much more into being pro-natality. Free childcare for one, more restrictions on bosses and policing working hours as a matter of policy, not of the market for another. Turning Singapore into a pro-family and pro-children-nurturing society would mean new kinds of laws and practises so that working parents can give their energies to the family and not just be exhausted at the workplace. Present-ism and long-hours-for-appearances must go, and if workplace campaigns are not sufficient, then elevating to law is the obvious next choice. It can lead to absurd headlines, as Sharon Au found out in France, but this might be where we want to go if we want to be serious about it. Even if not, then there must be more and cheaper childcare, so people can work knowing well that their young children are well taken care of. Having childcare near where people are, or centres near transportation nodes, should be considered if not already implemented. 

In the meantime, we will have to find ways to live together - different generations together, all active in different ways, contributing to society, and asking for wildly different things. We will have to live with each other’s differences, differences that we sometimes cannot bear, but live together we must. 

Immigration will have to be part of the way we live. We just need more people to come and care for the people we love, and to work alongside with. 

Altogether, we will have to live with hyper-complexity - the Singapore in the years to come will be diverse in ways we can’t even imagine yet. We will have to build spaces and ‘containers’ where those differences can be understood and experienced, and to widen those spaces so that we can all this island home. 

Our Posture

This leads us to a larger point, about how to frame Singapore’s overall position as we confront these issues. Our internal policy choices will come with sharper trade-offs. For instance raising revenue to fund recurrent things will mean raising taxes. But where? GST will be one area - a point of solidarity, but also because they are still low, comparatively. Income and corporate taxes will be another, and corporate taxes will mean being less competitive than before. Estate taxes will mean taking an edge off being a financial hub and eroding Singapore’s play for High Net Worth Individuals. At the same time, technological change and the decarbonisation agenda will mean serious changes to our workforce and lead to increased anxiety and more social support for the period of unemployment. Some of these might even become structural - industries changed forever, requiring a new technical paradigm - which means additional training for the skills rendered obsolete. These are changes of such large size and scope that they are difficult to wrap our heads around. 

Meeting the Crises

These are large things changing around the world that Singapore will be affected by. Funding is not even the hardest of those issues - future leaders then will have to make and live by those decisions, and will need the humility to change their minds if things are not going well. The hardest things to change are the cultural ones - the habits developed over time and seemingly solidified, until a crisis comes along and reveals how futile they were. We have to be ok with more foreigners in our midst, for instance. Over time, many will become part of our community, and we have to make accommodations in our social policies. The way we care for the elderly will change, and we should celebrate nursing homes and other intermediate care facilities near us. We have to get used to the fact that we have to keep learning things all the time, and that we should receive proper support to do so. It should not matter what degrees we got, but how good our skills are and to keep improving at those. Our social practices might have to change - taking time off to care for elderly people should be seen as proper and respectable, and worked into our HR systems. Other than these changes, more might be expected - these are just the very obvious implications that come to mind as we have to adapt our country to these realities. 

For Singapore, these challenges are indeed grave, and in some way they challenge our current form of existence - geopolitical contestations means the need to anchor our identity on our multiculturalism so not to be swayed by other powers; the climate crisis and decarbonisation means the need to build up climate-resilient infrastructure and be ready for technical paradigm shifts; technological changes require increasing social support for job changes and lifelong skills development; ageing population means increasing health and social care modalities. 

Webbed Governance

Our structure of webbed governance[4] - the state, together with companies and society, amplified by digital tools, will be tested by the size and scope of these challenges. The state, with its blunt instruments of incentives and punishments, can only do so much; it can provide the floor for the people in need, and the important basic services, but for flourishing, other parts of society have to come in. Businesses have to do their part, realise that there is an implicit social contract with their employees and with society and increasingly with the environment. There has to be everyone-wins mentality - satisfied employees with less anxiety of their parents and their workplace and industry can put in effort at work; bosses have to create a flourishing workplace so that the enterprise can succeed in these times of rapid change. Society needs to help each other flourish as well, delivering care and services in the last mile, especially during periods of crisis. In peacetime, we build up our capabilities and networks - bringing people together, learning skills (web development, applications) to help each other in concrete ways, to be mobilised at scale during crises. 

[1] Dan Buettner introducing the Blue Zones concept in this TED Talk: 

[2] China has increasingly unfavourable demographics. 

[3] I’m thinking about the Hendrickson Affair and how Mr Kausikan had framed in terms of the American promotion of democracy and political rights. 

[4] Webbed Governance: Singapore’s governing concept here: 

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