A borderless world

Straits Times | 3 April 2016
By Cheong Suk-Wai

The discovery in 2013 of horse flesh in beef-and-pork meatballs sold by, among others, Swedish furnishing giant Ikea, angered many consumers.

That uproar, however, pales against the furore over the strong, steady stream of migrants from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere into Europe, which is disrupting daily life there in every way.

At first, it might be hard to see how dodgy mince can have anything to do with people in search of a better life.

Indian-American thinker Parag Khanna, however, points out that these are only two instances in which you will be able to discern where money, and so power, is moving to and from these days.

That is all thanks, of course, to technology, which has helped people make friends, do business and travel much more easily, quickly and cheaply than before computers became pervasive.

Khanna, 39, a senior research fellow at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation in the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here, has made that observation the thrust of his new book, Connectography, which is the third in his trilogy of books beginning with The Second World (2008) and then How To Run The World (2012).

The alumnus of the London School of Economics has been living here with his wife and two children since 2012 and is on the sub-committee on Connectivity, which is part of the Singapore Committee on the Future Economy.

He is also a contributor to The Straits Times Opinion pages, a regular commentator on cable news network CNN, a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and a trustee of the New Cities Foundation.

So he is plugged into world trends to show readers how the world is evolving from one defined by borders between countries to one where people and goods go anywhere they or their owners please. He does so clearly and with many absorbing examples in this book.

In the case of Ikea meatballs, investigators traced the contamination through Britain, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Romania and, finally, Cyprus, where a meat trader had supplied the horse meat that folks in Romanian abattoirs mixed into beef and pork.

As for those uprooting for better jobs and living conditions, he says there are at least 40 million bonded labourers today, with more and more to add to their plight, judging by the constant march of migrants into Europe, which is now trying its darnedest to shut them out.

All that is blurring the lines between countries and cultures, he points out, and so the world is evolving into one in which territorial borders mean little.

For example, he says in the book, after Singapore and Malaysia's "acrimonious 1965 divorce", Singapore "rose up the value chain and Malaysia modernised through harnessing its oil deposits and forests, the two countries have graduated from suspicion to cautious interdepen- dence to infrastructural density to commercial integration".

He adds: "They failed to remain a political federation 50 years ago, but are becoming a functional federation today."

Increasingly, he notes, better connectivity through technology has power slipping from the hands of national leaders into those of governors, mayors and grassroots leaders who run provinces, cities, towns and villages. For example, Indonesia's real power bases are its provinces, while major US cities such as New York City generate 85 per cent of America's GDP.

So, he argues, the future is now being shaped by what he calls "flow", or the easier, faster and cheaper movement of goods and services everywhere, and "friction" or the obstacles to flow, chiefly in the form of threats, conflicts, laws and distance.

The path to prosperity, increasingly, is to maximise flow by minimising friction, the fallouts of which can be seen in the meatball and migrant experiences above.

Now, the idea of a borderless world is old. Among others, Japanese thinker Kenichi Ohmae made waves worldwide with his book, The Borderless World (1990).

Neither is the notion that cities are now the real power centres. American sociologist Saskia Sassen dealt with that in her 2001 book, The Global City.

What is new about Khanna's argument is his approach of uncovering and following business trails all over the globe, which often reveal people in the unlikeliest places keeping brands profitable and, in the process, are improving their own lives. For example, Bangladeshi sweat shop workers are the ones who make Zara togs, workers in Tennessee make tyres for South Korea's Hankook corporation and China is building a cross- country railway for Ethiopia.

"A supply chain order is not a libertarian fantasy or a universal socialist paradise," he writes in Connectography, which the Singapore permanent resident will launch here on April 14, ahead of its release in the United States.

The heart of his argument, then, is Chapter 13, in which he analyses the upheaval and hope from ever- increasing global supply chains today.

Citing Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, he notes that the world will soon be divided "not just between the haves and the have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it and those that do".

To prepare for such a future, he says it helps to know what different people in diverse cultures are thinking at any time.

He knows a lot about this, having been to more than 50 countries over 20 years to research his books, which he says led to some "near-death experiences" as he travelled from London to Mongolia in a beat-up Land Rover. Everywhere he went, including on a motorcycle around Iran, he sees a "fundamental transformation" is underway.

For all his insights into power play today, the root of his inquiry is really an attempt to answer this question: How do we keep everyone decently employed in the future?

His most compelling answer, backed up by solid research, is for developed countries to partner developing countries in building infrastructure. In fact, he argues, doing so is the way out of the current global dilemma today of how to fuel economic growth in future.

That view is, perhaps, his most valuable contribution to the discussion on how countries can thrive in the future.

FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

1. Why and how is the current world order changing?

2. What could you do about these changes such that you are even better off eventually?

3. In what ways should the rich share the world's wealth with the poor?

4. Why do most governments treat foreign investors better than their citizens?

5. What new opportunities should countries seize if they want to grow and prosper?

THE GOOD

1. From Afghanistan to the Arctic, the Indian-American geopolitical strategist Parag Khanna has visited more than 50 countries in the past two decades to write his trilogy, of which Connectography is the latest instalment. He gives readers diverse perspectives on how people are changing the way they think and live. Connectography proves an excellent primer on the state of the world in this century, with its sharp snapshots on why the Middle East is so restive, how Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are working closely to bolster one another's future and what the United States should do to, as its potential presidential candidate Donald Trump says, "make America great again".

2. It helps that Khanna is well connected, from his time working in American think-tanks and shaping discussions at the yearly World Economic Forum to his role as adviser to the Singapore Government on how to ride on connectivity to power its future.

3. While not quite a storyteller, he articulates his arguments clearly and has a knack of choosing compelling examples that help readers grasp all that he has to say. He is also strong on getting to the nub of the matter. Consider this musing on where the world is going: "We will likely never have a global free market, but rather have a world where the expanding global economy becomes ever more a strategic battleground, Indeed, economies are opening, but not necessarily according to the same rules."

THE BAD

1. Khanna writes beautifully. For the most part, his narrative reads swimmingly, despite the considerable breadth, depth and heft of his learning. However, he succumbs to jargon occasionally. This might put readers off.

THE IFFY

1. His argument that global supply chains help lift moral standards is tenuous and belies his idealistic outlook on things. For instance, the example he gives of multi- national companies improving working conditions for sweatshop workers glosses over the fact that MNCs have done more to prop up their image than for workers' welfare.

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Globes Were His Favorite Room Decoration

In 2014, the Indian-American thinker Parag Khanna sent a swab of his inner cheek to National Geographic magazine.

He was taking part in its worldwide Genographic Project, along with people from 140 countries.

As Khanna, 39, writes in his new book, Connectography, the ensuing analysis of his swab showed that his DNA was "a blur of 22 per cent Mediterranean, 17 per cent South-east Asian, 10 per cent Northern European and only about 50 per cent South-west Asian".

"And I thought I was just an un- exotic Punjabi," says Khanna, who has a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and is among the most influential thinkers today on power plays globally.

While his wife Ayesha, who he calls "the only compass I need", is also Punjabi, she is from Pakistan, whose people are still ostensibly at odds with India for having hived it off as a separate country in 1947.

"Ayesha and I met in New York, where two Punjabis from either side of the Radcliffe Line forming a union and marrying is nothing out of the ordinary."

On Aug 17, 1947, the Radcliffe Line - named after British judge Cyril Radcliffe, who drew this demarcation - became the internationally accepted border between Hindu-majority India and Muslim- majority Pakistan, India's former territory.

Thus was Pakistan hived off in the wrenching separation known as Partition.

Khanna and his wife's union has produced daughter Zara, seven, and son Zubin, three.

They have written a book together, Hybrid Reality (2012).

Mrs Khanna, 42, is the co-founder and chief executive of tuition and enrichment hub The Keys Academy here.

When they announced to their friends and family that they were "moving to the future", he says "we didn't realise just how true it would be".

He bats away concerns about increasing anti-foreigner sentiment here: "We wouldn't live here if we didn't absolutely love it with the fervour of converts, so to speak."

His childhood fascination with maps feature a lot in Connectography.

"Globes were my particular favourite to decorate my room with," he recalls in an e-mail interview with The Sunday Times.

Suggest to him that his release of Connectography might be poorly timed as Europe's migrant crisis and bellicose US presidential candidate Donald Trump are turning many people against most things foreign, he muses: "There is what populist politicians in America and Europe say, and then there is what they do... Readers should care much more about the actual trends and the genuine needs of their societies than about politicians who will be gone tomorrow."

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