Nicholas Walton’s Singapore, Singapura: From Miracle to Complacency
(Hurst, 2019) is far more than a portrait of the rise of a resource-poor nation that has become a model of economic development, governance and management of inter-communal relations. Part travelogue, part history, Walton charts the opportunities and pitfalls confronting small states that have become particularly acute in an era of identity politics and civilizational leadership. Potential threats include not only the Singapore’s struggle to insulate itself from global trends as well the impact of the rise of ultra-conservative attitudes in its majority Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also increased difficulty in balancing rival powers China and the United States. If that were not enough, Singapore is juggling multiple issues at a time that it is transiting to a new generational leadership faced with the challenge of ensuring that Singapore remains relevant to its neighbours as well as the international community at large.
To do so, Singapore’s leadership will have to upgrade if not reinvent its relevance to its neighbour as well as the international community at large given tectonic geopolitical and technological shifts among which first and foremost artificial intelligence. Walton argues convincingly that complacency may be one of Singapore’s greatest challenges. Generational change involves not only a new generation of leadership but also a generation that was born into a wealthy welfare state, lacks the older generations’ sense of being pioneers and takes things for granted. It is a challenge that is likely to have consequences for a rethink of Singapore’s education system, considered one of the world’s best. In portraying the miracle of Singapore’s success and the challenges it faces, Walton brings a strong sense of history, keen observation and a journalist’s ability to paint with words an incisive picture of a country that has turned its lack of resources into an asset.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.