Singapore is already a global city — Straits Times

The Straits Times |

By Cassandra Chew

BY SEVERAL counts, Singapore is a global city and does not need to advertise itself as one, academic Parag Khanna has argued.

At The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum last Friday, he said Singapore fulfilled many of the characteristics of a global city, which to him is one that is stable, wealthy, diverse, connected, creative and a role model for others.

The rise of global cities was a topic that Dr Khanna, director of the Hybrid Reality Institute and senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, spoke about at a lunchtime talk at the forum.

He also touched on megatrends such as the devolution of power and the rise of regionalism, and how these impacted on Singapore.

On Singapore's qualification as a global city, he noted that it has a diverse demographic. With foreigners making up a third of its total workforce, the city state is second only to Dubai in terms of the percentage of foreigners in its population.

Also, as a wealthy city, Singapore plays a key role in the international financial sector. It was chosen as the first offshore yuan hub outside China in May, and has over $28 billion in yuan deposits to date.

In June, consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicted that Singapore would overtake Switzerland and London as the world's top wealth management centre by the end of this year.

And in a nod to the social, political and economic stability that Singapore offers, a PwC study last year ranked Singapore as the most liveable city in Asia, mainly due to the ease of doing business and efficient infrastructure.

In human resources consulting firm Mercer's new City Infrastructure ranking of 221 cities, Singapore came out on top.

However, Dr Khanna said there was no need for Singapore to advertise itself as a global city.

"You don't see in New York (the label) 'New York: Global City', nor do you see that in London, because they are global cities. If you are a global city, you don't need to brand yourself as one."

Singapore's drawback is that it is a CSI - City, State, Island - with no sprawling countryside retreats for those who need to escape congested city life, unlike most other global cities belonging to countries.

He acknowledged the tensions between Singaporeans and their Government over the rapid expansion of the city's population to ensure economic growth, but said he would not suggest going back in time to undo what had already been done.

Rather, "the goal tomorrow is to allow everyone to benefit" from the growth achieved.

"Just because Singapore is not letting in people as fast (as it used to), that is not a measure of how global a city Singapore is. It's how well you serve all its constituents while also being global," he said.

As for what the optimal population size of Singapore should be, Dr Khanna said it was "not unimaginable that seven or even eight million people could live here productively" in the next 10 to 20 years.

But he also envisions a "much more physically evolved Singapore where towns play a stronger role" as laid out in the 2013 Urban Redevelopment Authority Draft Master Plan.

It would be where "not everyone is going down to Orchard Road or the Central Business District every single day". He described the future Singapore as "a city of villages".

During his speech, Dr Khanna observed the trend of devolution worldwide. This is the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, such as from central government to local or regional administration.

In the United States, for instance, President Barack Obama's administration is seen to be ineffective because of debacles such as the foul-ups with the launch of the health-care programme and the recent government shutdown.

Cities such as New York realised they could no longer count on Washington to carry out policies effectively and have begun to pursue their own immigration and foreign commercial policies.

At the same time as the tendency towards devolution of power, there is also the move towards regionalism, helped by the success of, say, the European Union.

The euro zone has proven resilient in the face of its economic crisis. There is now talk of greater integration with a fiscal compact and a banking union.

Possibly taking a leaf from the EU, regional mechanisms are spreading and deepening worldwide.

There are now several regional organisations, such as the East African Community, the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council and, closer to home, Asean.

As a "nimble player of multi-alignment" and the "capital of Asia", Singapore needs be a role model and play a more assertive leadership role in the region, he argued.

In the case of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and a few Asean nations, for example, Singapore could play an active role to resolve the conflict.

It could set up a Singapore-listed company, managed by the respective littoral states' national energy companies which would share responsibilities for approving exploration projects and sharing profits, he said.

"I propose that this is an opportunity for Singapore to play a neutral role as a commercial arbiter to transform the dispute from one that is legal, territorial and nationalistic and therefore in many ways unresolvable, towards one that is commercial and cooperative."


"So often we talk about mayors like (mayor of New York City) Michael Bloomberg and (mayor of London) Boris Johnson as if they are CEOs of cities and running cities the way we run companies.

I think that's interesting because of the ways we can use data today as a tool for governance. What I see happening in Singapore is the transcending of traditional debates around political modernisation that presume an inexorable culmination in Western democracy.

Instead, Singapore is becoming what I call the info-state, a place in which data matters as much, if not more, than democracy.

In this way, Singapore could have an edge over other city-states and even great world capitals such as London or New York, or certainly remain on par with them."

- Dr Parag Khanna on how data is becoming more important than democracy in the running of global cities

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SINGAPORE'S economic success can be attributed to the country being "strategically paranoid", said academic Parag Khanna.

Explaining the phrase at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Friday, Dr Khanna said it is about being constantly on your toes to consider various scenarios in order to stay one step ahead of the competition.

"It isn't one thing. It's maintaining a relationship with China and the United States, ensuring your economic viability. It's about constantly shifting your value chains to remain relevant," he said.

The labour movement's mantra of "cheaper, better, faster", urging companies and workers to become more productive, is one example of strategic paranoia.

Other examples include: seeking water independence from Malaysia; refining petroleum despite having no indigenous oil and gas; and maintaining friendly diplomatic relations with the US, China, India, Japan, Europe and all other major powers at the same time.

This is how, despite being a small state, Singapore has outdone other post-colonial states, said Dr Khanna.

"I think strategic paranoia has been a great guide for Singapore in the last 50 years. I think it will be a great guide for Singapore in the next 50 years as well."

He coined the phrase "strategic paranoia" for countries based on a concept called "constructive paranoia" for individuals, described by anthropologist Jared Diamond, 75, who spent most of his adult life living among the cannibal tribes of Papua New Guinea.

In explaining it, Mr Diamond said he managed to live so long despite prolonged exposure to disease, falling trees and cannibal tribes by being "constructively paranoid" all the time, recounted Dr Khanna.

Read more article: Global Economy: Is the WTO Deal a Game Changer?

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