Monday, 25 February 2013

S'pore's best-kept secrets: Its virtues

Time to reboot Singapore brand and showcase achievements to the world
By Parag Khanna, Published The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

SINCE relocating to Singapore six months ago, I've continued my travels to the Middle East, Africa, South America, Europe, the United States and elsewhere in Asia.

Unlike in the past, however, when asked where I come from and where I live, I answer "Singapore". Imagine my shock when so many people around the world respond with almost Pavlovian reflex: "Ahh, chewing gum!" Or: "Of course, caning!"

It's striking how the image of Singapore lags two decades behind the reality. While the monikers of trivial incidents are passed down over generations, many of Singapore's virtues remain its best-kept secrets.

This neglect of Singapore's brand threatens to perpetuate itself. A small handful of Yale University's liberal arts faculty seem not to know the difference between Singapore and Saudi Arabia; most of their vituperative assaults on the Yale-NUS partnership have gone unanswered.

No Singaporean has stood up and stated the obvious: Yale - or any other university - would be lucky to have an outpost in the thriving heart of Asia. These students might go back to Yale with worldly and practical perspectives that could enlighten the more myopic professors on campus.

In fact, Singapore's star is rising fast. Just last month, two Harvard professors published a set of conversational reflections on the career of the "grand master" Lee Kuan Yew - but pointing as much to what one can learn from Singapore's past as its vision for the future as the unofficial capital of Asia. Indeed, its only rival for this title, Hong Kong, has made itself practically unliveable due to political capture by mainland China and horrendous air pollution.

Meanwhile, Singapore is becoming every day more and more the "Global Asia" hub for Asians looking to invest abroad as well as Western and other multinationals seeking a greater Asian presence.

All of this hints at the emergence of a new phase in how Singapore perceives itself - and how the world could appreciate it. A visit to the Singapore Discovery Centre reminds one of the first phases of Singapore's modernisation: independence, nation-building and internationalism. What must come next is leadership.

Today, Singapore is the only truly successful post-colonial nation in the world. It is also a role model as an agile entrepot in a turbulent world economy, a smart city in an age where sustainable urbanisation is the paramount priority, and a pioneering "info-state" in an era where data plays as much a role in governance as democracy.

Singapore is not immediately replicable, but that won't stop increasing swathes of the world from trying once they see its accomplishments. It is time, therefore, to reboot Singapore's brand.

Each agency responsible for promoting Singapore does its job exceptionally well. The Economic Development Board (EDB) smoothly brings in leading multinationals to establish regional headquarters and R&D facilities. Changi Airport is indisputably the world's best, and the Singapore Tourism Board is ensuring steadily growing visitor traffic.

Sentosa Island and Marina Bay Sands, which has replaced Raffles Hotel as the iconic image of Singapore, are buzzing with tourists and gamblers. With its expansion beyond China and South-east Asia, Singbridge will speed up other countries' infrastructural modernisation and economic growth.

But the whole is not yet greater than the sum of its parts. No single agency is tasked with crafting an overarching strategy for Singapore's international profile. Because there is no meta-image of Singapore, the rest of the world falls back on chewing gum and caning. Singapore has to make it easier for others to understand what it is.

Mr Simon Anholt, founder of the nation-branding field, has convincingly demonstrated that the positive (or negative) image of a country correlates very little to what it has done for itself, and much more to its contributions to the world. Singaporeans need to start singing from a similar sheet of music - and also go on a world tour. Exporting Singapore itself is the best thing Singapore can do.

Consider how Britain has pursued enhancing its global reputation. There have been widely recognisable campaigns such as "Cool Britannia" and "THIS IS GREAT Britain". The Olympics and Paralympics were stellar in execution, and the Diamond Jubilee and royal wedding were made to feel like global events.

In addition to successfully promoting these events, London & Partners has overseen a streamlined visa policy, more Asian students enrolled in universities, and an uptick in foreign investment. With this single agency coordinating diverse activities, Britain topped Monocle magazine's 2012 soft power index. The lesson is that every agency needs to know where it fits into a broader policy. Coordinating such a strategy is a role Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, should be empowered to play.

Some would argue that Singapore lacks the size or clout to compete with the likes of New York and London. But this misses the shifting foundations of influence in the 21st century. Singapore represents not only itself but Asia, the region to which all powers and regions, not just America, are "pivoting". Singapore also has other assets these great global English- speaking cities lack: superior infrastructure and quality of life. Singapore is cleaner, greener and safer than any other major city. After a brief lapse due to rapid growth and rising expectations, the Government is again on track to build infrastructure ahead of demand.

Many of Singapore's nascent investments and priorities should be considered pillars of its long- term strategic vision. The EDB and the Energy Market Authority are providing substantial new incentives for the private sector to finance industrial conversion to lower emissions, while backing advanced efforts in waste-to-energy such as Alpha Biofuels. More than $16 billion will be spent from 2010 to 2015 to support innovative R&D and enterprise.

The major investments in upgrading Singapore's towns from Jurong West to Changi into leading-edge clusters will go a long way towards decongesting the Central Business District and making Singapore what Mr Boris Johnson aspires for London: to be a charming "city of villages". Only then can the heated debates over population targets be resolved in a win-win fashion: A more populous and diverse nation, but one in which there are affordable housing, decent work and desirable lifestyles for all stakeholders in society, indigenous and foreign.

As the Singapore Institute for International Affairs' "Future 50" project highlights, the population issue is more than just demographics: It is fundamentally about Singapore's competitiveness and image as an inclusive city of opportunity, essential for any top-tier world capital.

There are also many things Singapore can do to surprise, excite and inspire. Imagine if Newater, Singapore's recycled answer to commercially bottled water, were itself bottled and distributed for free? An informally named "Evian Tax" would be levied on imported bottle water, a reminder of their highly impure supply chains. Such a bold move would immediately spark a movement among the world's progressive leaders.

As important as efficient mobility is to Singaporeans, the country should also become the first major test-bed for Google's driverless car technology, leveraging and expanding the road sensor networks already in place.

With skills-focused education becoming the new norm for a globally competitive labour force, Singapore's vocational institutes and polytechnics should become not only physical but also virtual hubs for workers seeking the most up-to-date curricula for rapidly shifting supply chains.

Just as importantly, Singapore can lighten up culturally, with more skateboarding parks and street art. If Beijing can have an avant garde arts district such as Zone 798, then surely the Gillman Barracks can be a bit messier and edgier as well. All of these would show a Singapore that can lighten up without letting down its guard, a country that is not just smart but also sexy.

The writer is director of the Hybrid Reality Institute and author of the new e-book Hybrid Reality: Thriving In The Emerging Human-Technology Civilisation (TED Books, 2012). The Hybrid Reality Institute is a research and advisory group focused on human-technology co-evolution, geotechnology and innovation.

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