Thursday 26 January 2012

Striving in the uncertain digital future

By Ho Ching, Published The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2012

AS A small, open society in a highly interconnected world, Singapore will be buffeted by the deep global changes taking place around us.

On the demographic front, it took the world 120 years (1804-1924) to double from one billion to two billion people. But it took less than the last 15 years for it to increase by another billion, from six billion to seven billion.

It is a big and fast-growing world of people, all hungry for a better life for themselves and their children. This creates enormous pressure on resources, and thus the challenges of sustainability and global warming.

We are living much longer too. Up till the 1950s, people lived until their early 50s. Today, the 60s are the new 40s. We live longer, thanks to better education, better nutrition and better health care. Globally, among those over 60, the number of those who are 80 years old and older is growing the fastest - at the rate of 4 per cent a year. So we not only are living longer, we are having more and more old folks above 80 years old.

At the younger end, the fertility rate is plummeting globally. In Britain, it took 130 years to go from a fertility rate of five to a rate of two. But mothers in developing countries today can expect to have three children, when their mothers had six or more. Sometime between 2020 and 2050, the world's fertility rate as a whole will fall below the replacement rate of 2.1. So the issue of replacement fertility is not just a Singapore issue.

Singapore's fertility rate is 1.2 - even less than China's 1.6, with its one-child policy. Our birth rate is a far cry from in 1966, when the KK Women's and Children's Hospital delivered nearly 40,000 babies in one year, a world record, and continued to deliver the most number of babies at a single medical facility for a decade. With life expectancy at over 80 years old, and our low fertility rate, we are not only ageing rapidly, but our numbers will also shrink, with fewer and fewer young people to look after more and more older folks.

This means more resources to support the expanding base of the elderly, with the burden falling on a shrinking base of younger people. In the United States, the government spends 2.4 times more on elderly retirement benefits than it does on children, including their education.

The old Bismarckian approach of state-funded pensions will not be sustainable in a growing and greying world.

Social security systems like those in the US or Germany, which depend on the working population to contribute to a common pool to fund the retirees, just cannot carry on for long. They will have to go through difficult and painful reform, much like what Greece is going through today. Two-thirds of private sector pensions in the US have already shifted to defined contributions plans much like our Central Provident Fund system, where our retirement benefits depend on what we put into our individual retirement accounts.

But the most important trend is the dramatic digitalised world.

Human society has gone through three major shifts: from small nomadic families wandering vast prehistoric plains, to larger agricultural communities clustered around fertile land and water, to the large thriving cities of the past two centuries, amplified by the industrial revolution.

In 1800, just over 200 years ago, only 3 per cent of the world lived in urban cities and towns.

A century later, in 1900, 14 per cent of the world lived in cities. The great industrial revolution led to mass urbanisation, as well as the globalisation of manufacturing and commerce.

In a village where everyone knows everyone and almost everyone is related by birth or marriage, norms of behaviour are passed down through the generations, to respect your elders and value folk wisdom. The stories that grandpa told of the giant killer wave must be remembered.

Come the industrial revolution, and youngsters migrated to cities, where no one knows you. You are anonymous among tens of thousands of strangers from a polyglot of other cultures and beliefs. It is scary for some, but mostly a heady brew of freedom for others. There were no accepted rules of behaviour or engagement.

Take for instance, the case of milk - precious milk for children. Mothers bought milk marketed as wholesome and fed it to their babies, slowly poisoning and killing them. It took thousands of sick children and infant deaths before lawmakers intervened. This is not China in 2008. This is New York City in 1858.

How did this happen?

Fast-growing New York saw dairymen padding their milk supply with water and flour. Some even used swill milk from cows that were fed alcoholic mash from nearby whisky distilleries. Some cows were so diseased from their alcoholic diet that their teeth rotted, their tails fell off, and their udders were ulcerated. To remove and thicken the swill, dairymen would add plaster, starch, eggs and molasses. Up to 8,000 children died every year from swill milk, until a crusader and newspapers ran a campaign to close the distillery dairies. This was New York City in 1858.

Likewise, China faced a sudden surge of movement into cities as the country urbanised at a rate of 30 million people a year - that is more than one Taiwan a year. China essentially went through a modern industrial revolution within 30 years. And so, the New York experience was repeated, as the rural society adapted to become an industrial community.

In such a raw frontier environment, we can no longer rely on shame and families to police proper codes of conduct. As new examples of misbehaviour surface, societies evolved new systems and codified laws to police and manage the temptations of freedom. New rules of engagement had to be established among the new disparate and disconnected groups of community - standards for industrial- scale milk producers, protection for workers, and so on.

By 2050, two-thirds of the world will live in urban areas. These megacities are where people can go through life without much social interaction if they so wish. People are connected, and yet may be totally disconnected. Schools, families, jobs are where people connect, yet people can remain anonymous and disconnected.

This change will be more dramatic in the large emerging or growing economies like China, India and Brazil, because of their much-faster pace of urbanisation. As rural populations migrate into urban settings, new codes of conduct will have to evolve, as values and social norms are enforced on the margins by codified laws.

Last year, the number of active Facebook users crossed the 800 million mark, making it the third-largest 'nation' in the world. One in nine people in the world has a Facebook account. Niche marketing can target the world, unhindered by traditional national boundaries.

World of Warcraft garnered 11 million gamers in 2008, who logged on regularly to a virtual world to fight each other and kill monsters. It is the size of a megacity, of players gathered from across the world.

This mega Facebook nation or mega World of Warcraft city is connected in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago. Yet there is a paradox as well.

People know like-minded people halfway around the world, yet remain disconnected from their immediate neighbours, not even knowing their names, and perhaps feeling disconnected from their own families.

Teachers of today have to teach our kids to protect themselves from the dark side of the Internet, learning how to deal with cyberbullies - not just physical bullies. The cloak of anonymity on the Internet is heady freedom. It can create unimaginable havoc.

Take the case of Korean hip-hop megastar Daniel Lee - stage name Tablo, with the group Epik High. Daniel spent more than six months in 2010 defending himself against false allegations about his academic credentials from Stanford University spread by an anonymous group. The scandal affected not just the artist and his band, but his friends, family and officials at his alma mater. Lee became so distraught that he did not trust the medical staff at a hospital when his first child was born. Lee has since filed charges against 20 of his attackers, but could not move against the leading agitator, a 57-year-old Korean-American living in the US, a complete stranger just out to make mischief.

This anonymity can encourage bad behaviour; over time, we must evolve new rules of engagement and behaviour in our cybercommunity.

But until then, who will be the accepted guardian of public good in this borderless Internet world? How will we stop extreme harassment, which in some cases leads to suicide?

Disconnected individuals can self-radicalise. Extreme views develop, fanned by like-minded malcontents. Generation C, or the connected generation, can be deeply disconnected.

How do we connect as a people, a community or a country? How do we evolve shared values? Can the Internet disenfranchise a big segment of our population? How do we police and punish cross-border crimes of identity theft, harassment or espionage?

Our young today will shape those values, norms and laws of tomorrow's connected and disconnected world.

Humankind has not fully adapted to the great urban transition. Yet we are already in the throes of a digital age of global connectedness and disconnectedness.

It took many generations to have recognised codes of behaviour in order to protect the village green, and not have everyone rush their sheep over to graze the green bare.

Will our next generation get onto an unsustainable path or will they know how to break out, just as late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made the courageous decision to break out from an unsustainable system?

There are no easy answers.

We can only continue equipping our next generation with the best gift we can give them: education and thinking.

Education in values and character, education in knowledge and critical thinking. Wisdom they will have to acquire to know when they have to make calculations for the larger good and for the longer term, instead of just optimising themselves as individuals at the expense of society as a whole.

With the Internet, knowledge takes on a different dimension. We need to transform knowledge into wisdom. We can be clever without being wise. Can we be wise enough to know how to separate the fluff from the substance, to discern the difference between the trifling and the fundamental essentials, and to have the courage to make the hard choices?

There are no models for the world to follow. We, teachers and parents, as well as our students and next generations, will have to cross the river by feeling for the stones.

Modern Singapore will be 50 years old in another three years. We will have to wait for another 50 years before we know if we have educated or nurtured a people through more than three generations.

The writer is executive director and chief executive of Temasek Holdings. This is an edited excerpt of a speech earlier this month at the Academy of Principals' Start of School Year Tea.

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