05 Sep 2018

Hollywood is celebrating Singapore’s economic lead with 'Crazy Rich Asians', a rom-com where transnational Singaporean elites are equally at home with Bible-study and Twitter as well as esoteric 'Asian customs'.

The imagery evoked is simple; financially ascendant Americanised locals have conquered the West and now want to celebrate their success with personal happiness and romance.

Indeed, this is an imagery that Singapore is anxious to promote; having successfully conducted a series of global conferences and showcased the glittering Marina Bay skyline, Singapore appears to be the leading symbol of globalisation's full potential. In an era of economic populism in the West and industrial Asia, this imagery is comforting.

China does not seem to mind this at all. In fact, it is Singapore's lead role as ASEAN's financial hub and nexus that facilitates the Belt and Road's intensification in Asia. Advocates like Sun Xi frequently praise the elite status of Singapore's meritocratic structure, allowing for surgical governance that quickly adjusts to the global market's whims, without having excessive concern for hinterland problems and the negative impact of industrial policies.

In the fortieth anniversary of the 1978 reforms, China has fully embraced market forces as a means to project its rising global influence and Singapore is as attractive as a governance laboratory to Beijing as it is to the OECD states; seeking to maximise market efficiency with minimal costs. The Indian elite is equally attracted to this concept that capitalist growth can be socially engineered through technocratic excellence. Singapore's openness to English as a national language and early outreach to New Delhi, culminated in an early FTA more than a decade ago.

But all of these governance and market-oriented marvels require the constant inhalation of fresh global talent at reasonable costs. Criticism is mounting that Singapore’s slowdown in migration flows is endangering its appeal to Fortune 500 companies. Is it still able to handle the upper echelons of the trans-national economy?

Professor Parag Khanna has hinted that ethnicity is part of the problem; that the Singaporean ruling class has to manage its ethnic proportions to maintain the status quo. Prof Khanna emphasised that a meritocratic Singapore has to reflect the growing ethnic vibrancy of the Indo-Pacific region, that foreign talent policies must resonate with the changing complexion of skilled labour from the rest of the world aside from the traditional growth hubs in the East Asia.

In short, as ethnic identity becomes more variegated, so must Singapore’s talent pool. Therein lies the conundrum to policy makers, with concerns that a voter backlash would recur.

In Singapore, there is an added urgency of maintaining balanced talent flows between the competing powers in the region. Singapore has rapidly reinvented itself as the premier global hub of a rising Asian-Pacific Century, now it has to adjust its constituent values to justify the benefits accrued.And this is very much a dilemma of the elites.

Singapore's current governing party has dominated its modern history and is unlikely to change in the near future. The management of these flows remains in their hands . In the past, this was a domestic governance question that solely impacted the local economy. In its present incarnation, given the outbound success of Singapore's global arm and its importance to the competing international powers, migration has taken on a new urgency.

How does Singapore wish to rejuvenate itself in a manner that is acceptable to these parties? Ideology is no longer a question, all parties embrace different flavours of techo-capitalism.

Ethnicity is considered politically incorrect and laced with backlash potential. Make the wrong choice and Singapore’s neo-liberal appeal to the global investment community would falter because Singapore isn't South Korea or Japan, there is little indigenous capacity to compensate for the drop in international appeal. Skew too much to an industrial policy and the Capitalist wonderland appeal vanishes; with accusations of "populism" or outdated economic policies.

How will Singapore decide?