Thursday, August 05, 2010

Singapore reflections - a shape of things to come?

During my last weeks in Singapore, the sands of time running through an hour glass was an image my mind often conjured. When one arrives at a new place every detail is newly experienced and therefore more vivid. This is partly because one is seeking to carry on life’s basic functions in an alien cultural context. This is true even in a society renowned for its “efficiency.” Where is the shuttle bus stop and which bus do I take? What are the procedures for opening bank and computer accounts? How can I keep track of new logons, passwords and telephone numbers most efficiently while seeking to initiate a research program? Why is it so difficult to master the complex architectural layout of my home campus at Bukit Timah, where Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Choo once spent their student days? How can I best remember the faces and names of numerous colleagues students and staff to whom I have been introduced and with whom I have had conversations? Where can I buy groceries? What are the bus and rapid transit routes - and stops - on which I will depend regularly?

When departure is imminent, one is again sensitive to every detail, but the sensitivity is different. There is an effort to fix favorite, familiar images in memory. For me these included the beauty of the Bukit Timah Campus and adjacent Botanical Gardens; the vividness of flowers and greenery everywhere; the ubiquitous construction projects reflecting Singapore’s ongoing commitment to “creative destruction.” I will remember viewing the city awakening in the early morning from my 10th floor apartment balcony. I will remember the faces of acquaintances I made at my favorite hawkers stands, especially the lady who served me Carlsberg Beers (with ice) and the one who collected dishes and cleaned tables on the nights I ‘ate out.’ I will remember the taste of two favorite dishes, “dumplings and noodles” and roast duck (price only S$3.00 per plate).

Life in Singapore is intense. Most Singaporeans work 12 hour days, six days a week and often half a day on sunday, as well. I found myself to be more time conscious than ever in my life, seeking to put every minute to good use. Some report that they find Singaporeans ‘unfriendly;’ however that was not my experience. Especially after my injury (as I reported in an earlier posting), I found strangers to be helpful and forthcoming. This was particular true of people whose income was modest - bus drivers, gardeners, janitorial staff, security guards and the like. Such individuals seemed always ready to exchange friendly greetings and engage in casual conversation - with a smile. The same was true of my Lee Kuan Yew School and Global Asia Institute faculty colleagues and staff.

I came to Singapore hoping to learn how this remarkable nation ended abject poverty sustainably. This concern had become more personal as a result of contacts with a homeless woman I came know and with “Street Sense” vendors who sell the weekly newspaper of the DC homeless community at metro stations and on street corners. While I have made progress on that project another also engaged my attention upon arrival, viewing Singapore as a model from which leaders of other Asian cities could learn. This was occasioned by a promise to have a paper drawing lessons from Singapore’s development accepted for presentation at the 2010 System Dynamics (computer modeling) Society Conference in Seoul, South Korea.

My limited - so far - probings of Singapore’s postwar history pointed to a conclusion that had previously escaped me. Singapore’s circumstances at the time of independence, when it was expelled by Malay leaders from the Malaysian Federation, closely resembled challenges that problems of “overshoot and collapse” will pose for large swaths of humanity in mid-century. These problems were first posed by “Global Modeling” studies members of the Club of Rome catalyzed (and in which I participated) in the early 1970s. The principal conclusions have been reaffirmed, in broad outline, by many subsequent publications including, most recently, the third iteration of the 1972 Limits to Growth study, Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update. In his prolific writing and speaking, my friend Dennis Meadows emphasizes that while System Dynamics model scenarios can target the time when symptoms of overshoot and collapse will surface massively, how these symptoms will become manifest is unpredictable. He points to the recent financial collapse and the collapse of the Soviet Empire as analogies.

For many nations, especially the United States with its bountiful natural resources, the potential challenges of physical limits, overshoot and collapse remain hypotheticals. Debates over their reality are filtered through ideological lenses. In Singapore, the physical limits of water, land, energy and virtually all other natural resources have been ever-present realities since independence day. In one the first speeches I heard him give, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, remarked, “when I awoke in the middle of the night, in the days and weeks after independence, what I worried about was Singapore’s water supply.”

Singapore’s leaders argue that disciplined planning, with a long time horizon, is essential for national survival; that western-style “one person, one vote democracy” does not always produce good policies; that making tough, unpopular decisions for the greater good is a leader’s responsibility; that all human beings are not created with equal endowments. Singapore’s distinctive society, political economy and governance institutions have been shaped by these views and by imperatives of national survival. Other societies, too, are facing similar imperatives, but have done far less well in coping. Within a few decades such imperatives will be undeniable planet-wide realities. Who can say that Singapore’s distinctive mix of free market capitalism, socialism and a commitment to living humanely within limits does not have lessons to offer? Who can say that it may not offer a “best possible” shape of things to come as our human species faces the imperatives posed by overshoot and collapse?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

pardon me. could i suggest that you either decrease the font size or increase the line spacing for your blog? it makes reading easier for your readers.

nice piece of writing nonetheless. thank you!

3:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

re singapore's ... socialism and commitment to living humanely within limits

socialism?! what socialism? what living humanely?

doesn't seem like you've been in the singapore i've lived in for many decades. certainly you haven't been here in the last 10 years.

12:25 PM  
Blogger vishal said...


10:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John

Do you mean global elites implement policy recommendations of Limits to Growth by being more coercively? The problem is that non-participatory approach is easy to leads to misunderstanding, especially if it is exploited by uncooperative elites to sabotage.

It might be a temporary measure during the last minute (when the consequences are pretty clear and so minimum resistance, e.g. when crisis comes), but the elites have to be very clear about its temporary nature and phase it out with fair education (moral, critical thinking) and working democracy soon. Otherwise the dissents grows, and when the government fails to keep its promise, the change of government will be tough.


9:36 PM  
Blogger 林翊娟 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

2:45 AM  

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