Singapore a 'living lab' to power couple

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The Straits Times | August 24, 2012

By Cheong Suk Wai

GEOPOLITICAL strategist Parag Khanna and his wife Ayesha are so well travelled that they have had to get a new passport for their three-year-old daughter Zara, her old one having run out of pages.

Thus far, this young family, which now includes seven-month-old son Zubin, have visited 25 countries together. Dr Khanna alone has worked in 100 countries - and he is all of 35 years old.

He and his wife, who is 38, are American citizens, and are seen by some as a global power couple, with academic pedigrees and charisma that plug them into international networks and global conversations on overcoming challenges in the information age.

Washington Post writer Christopher Schroeder wrote last month about the ideas in their new book on the interface of technology and human interaction: "It would be hard to find two people better equipped to prepare us for these changes."

Among the people the Khannas have advised are United States General Stanley McChrystal, who led the US forces in Afghanistan, Professor Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and musician-cum- do-gooder Bono.

Since July 8, their home has been a rented semi-detached house in Mountbatten Road, as they are now Singapore permanent residents.

Indeed, the couple announced their very public impending move to Singapore emphatically in a commentary for Bloomberg. They also sent a longer version of the article to The Straits Times, which published it on May 26.

In the Straits Times article, they explained their choice of home: "To live in the future, to some extent, you have to move to it. Singapore is not just a city-state; it is perhaps the world's leading 'info-state'... (which thrives) by providing not just security, but also connectedness to rapidly advancing markets and technologies."

The Straits Times caught up with the power couple at a cafe on East Coast Road recently.

Just what is Singapore's value proposition to them, after their heady life in the throbbing metropolises of New York City, London and Berlin?

After all, the articulate and measured Dr Khanna, who has a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics, is now half a world away from his days of advising the US Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his country's National Intelligence Council, and working at such influential think-tanks as the Brookings Institution, the World Economic Forum and the New America Foundation.

Feisty Mrs Khanna herself is an alumna of Harvard and Columbia universities who used to advise Wall Street financiers on how to harness technology to connect with customers and trade more effectively.

Seeing how technology shaped the way her clients thought and acted led her and her husband in 2010 to set up the Hybrid Reality Institute, which is a global network of multidisciplinary thinkers who discuss how people should best prepare for, and make the most of, a digital future.

The Khannas say Singapore was a no-brainer choice of abode because, for one thing, technologically savvy cities, not countries, will power the global economy from now on.

To them, few cities are savvier than Singapore. "It is the capital of Asia," Dr Khanna stresses, "and if you want to live where most of the world's people are, where better to do so than in the heart of it?"

Calling Singapore "dynamic, agile and constructive", Dr Khanna says the city-state's "very strategic thinking" has helped it overtake archrival Hong Kong even though the latter is closer to China - and those who read his books will know just how much he raves about China's economic triumphs.

From Economic Development Board (EDB) officers, he learnt about Singapore's proposed projects, including underground developments and malls, eco-friendly housing estates and massive land reclamations.

"These are all very strategic ventures and they're all Singaporean ideas," Dr Khanna notes. "No foreigner came and told you, 'You need to build underground.' This kind of experimentation is not only incredibly imaginative and bold, but also world-class and risky.

"No other country makes it its official policy to be a living lab," he stresses, noting what a far cry that is from even the ever-innovative US, whose researchers have "to fight tooth and nail" for the right to experiment.

The way Singapore manages innovation - just enough to make creative chaos constructive but not enough to stifle it - reminds him of equally capitalistic Germany.

But he hopes the Republic will study Germany's system of distributing economic gains closely too, because, as he puts it, Germany has become "the largest, most equitable, efficient and educated society today". That observation comes from his years of growing up and working there.

"In some ways," he muses, "Singapore is trial and error in a big way; it's just more trial and success than error."

There might be a deeper reason for their move here, though. As Mrs Khanna hints at one point: "Migrants built America, but today, unfortunately, there is some backlash against skilled immigrants there and in Europe... it's good that Singapore is still open to the best people you can find."

They are only too aware that they were hardly early movers in embracing Singapore, and so have arrived here in the thick of anti-foreigner sentiment.

"We were probably the last of the easy-entry PRs, because of the political climate here," says Dr Khanna, adding that there are two things that strike him about such sentiment.

First, he says, it coincides with what he calls Singapore's "new wave of popularity", after the initial hubbub of pioneering Western investors here some 40 years ago.

Second, he notes that for the first time in decades, Singapore has become "a bit unpredictable".

"There are no actual serious problems here," he says, "but you have economic inequality, ethnic tensions, political opposition and popular sentiment that accuses the leadership of not having a long-term vision any more."

He then muses: "Things are getting spicy, shall we say? And that's not a bad thing; it just makes things dynamic and interesting."

The Khannas have a way of neutralising negatives by constantly reminding you of the big picture - that things could be far worse.

Suggest, for instance, that anti-foreigner sentiment here can only get hoarier, and Dr Khanna says lightly: "There's always a difference between politics and policy, right? Everywhere in the world now, you have politics that play on sensitivities, scapegoats and create diversions of difference. In that sense, Singapore is becoming normal, like the rest of the world."

His wife suggests that the best way to bridge the gap between high-flying migrants here and the stagnating Singapore middle class is to tie incentives for attracting talent to obligations to give back to Singaporeans, not only by creating jobs for them but also by passing on skills, contacts and opportunities to them so they can compete effectively with the world's best.

Dr Khanna intends to practise what he preaches by working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various government agencies to think up ways in which Singapore can lead the world, and not just play a supporting role.

He has worked with government agencies such as the EDB and the Civil Service College, he says.

Now, he is also a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, and will work on a project to study future scenarios for Singapore and Asia.

The Khannas are keen to propagate ideas in their new book, Hybrid Reality: Thriving In The Emerging Human-Technology Civilisation.

They will give a talk at the Civil Service College on Sept 13 on the book, which took them four years to write.

The slim volume is an ultra-hopeful paean to a future driven by technology and a riveting read for tech-neophytes, although respected technology writer Evgeny Morozov criticised it for saying nothing new about how humanity is evolving with technology.

Such reviews don't rattle the upbeat Khannas, who say the way to adapt to change is to keep up a running dialogue on issues that matter to all.

In this, says Dr Khanna, Singapore is streets ahead of most global cities. He was a resident here for a month in 2006 as a fellow of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and he now says: "One of the things that people don't appreciate about Singapore is that the norm of consulting stakeholders has radically improved and increased in the past five to seven years.

"There's a lot more civic participation now, for example, on how a residential development should be structured so it fits into nature... Everyone in the world talks of what I call the whole-of-society approach, but Singapore is actually doing it a lot."

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