07 Oct 2016

The world requires an ever-changing lens to view challenges and opportunities. If we, as individuals, governments and policy practitioners, are unable to craft out new frameworks and templates to see the world, ask challenging questions, we will run the risk of our society stagnating and problems worsening.

The 12th anniversary celebration talk was held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) on 2 September 2016. It was aptly titled Reframing the World and fleshed out the big ideas which will shape our world.

The guest of honour, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Social and Family Development of Singapore, joined LKY School Dean Kishore Mahbubani and three distinguished speakers – Dr Parag Khanna, Senior Research Fellow, Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the LKY School, Dr Astrid S. Tuminez, Regional Director, Corporate, External and Legal Affairs, Microsoft (Southeast Asia) and Prof Danny Quah, Li Ka Shing Professor of Economics at the LKY School – in a discussion “Reframing The World”.

Dean Mahbubani inaugurated the session, enunciating the purpose of the TED-style talks. “What we are trying to achieve is to describe the world in new ways for everyone,” he said.

The talks touched upon five key points that a discussion on reframing the world should include: looking inwards as a society and the practicality required of policies and politics, infrastructure connectivity, cybersecurity in the digital age, the liberalisation delusion (the challenge to democratic, liberal systems), and the role of public policy schools.

Looking inwards as a society and practical policies

How should society frame the more important questions of our time, to what end, and how should public servants address these issues?

Chief guest Mr Tan said the importance of these answers being rooted in reality. “Ideas are incredibly important and are reconnaissance of new possibilities. Somehow these ideas are incredibly interesting when you debate and think about them. They don’t always become public policy quite so easily,” he said.

As an alumni of the school, he highlighted the importance of questioning society’s journey constantly. “We need to answer the basic question of navigation,” he said. “To what end? Where and why? And often enough, we forget what we are setting out to do.”

As a politician it is important that “we not merely ruminate or contemplate. We must urgently negotiate and inaugurate new frames to reflect our joint values and mutual interests,” he added.

The value of reframing the primary question of the goal is useful as it forces people, communities and policy-makers to re-examine and remind ourselves of fundamental and primary goals. “It is important that we have a sense of communitarian purpose,” he said.

Infrastructure connectivity

Building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Global affairs expert, Dr Khanna, explained the rationale behind it, “Infrastructure enables all of the other goals and is the platform on which human development occurs.“

Millions of pipelines, railroad tracks and roads connecting mankind make it essential to question the prevailing traditional narrative of how we are organised as human species into the Westphalian nation-state. The truth, though, Dr Khanna argued, is that we are increasingly accelerating a pattern of massive infrastructure investment, which is better described as a global urban network civilisation.

“There is natural and physical geography, but the world of infrastructure points us in the direction of a functional geography,” he said. “This is a layer on top of the other layers and almost supersedes in many ways, the other kinds of geography.”

Why is challenging the old narrative important? The dynamics within this global network civilisation are very different from the simplified dynamics of the inter-state competition. When countries are physically connected to each other, they see each other very differently.

There is still competition, but it tends to be over economic assets, value-chains, resources and gains, rather than territory, evidenced by the fact that we have moved into a world of almost zero border disputes. “So the competition is more about connectivity rather than lines of division,” said Dr Khanna.

Cybersecurity in the digital age

We live in a time of digital transformation. Technological trends such as social, mobile, big data and cloud computing are all shaping the way we live, work and entertain ourselves today. As a professional at one of the world’s largest technology companies, Dr Tuminez asked, “How can we be sure that the technology we are using every day can be trusted?”

Cybercrime that costs the world millions of dollars is rampant. Recent incidents include personal information of 21.5 million people stolen in the US; hackers used the flight information screens at Vietnam’s two biggest airports to protest Vietnam’s claims on the South China Sea; Millions of dollars were stolen from the Bangladashi central bank after a bank official’s computer was hacked.

Such incidents expose our vulnerability to cybercrime as Dr Tuminez explained with three different points. One, we must become more sophisticated users of technology, in order to prevent malware. What do we buy and where do we buy it? Do we know who has access to our information and communications technology systems and what kind of access?

Two, governments must do more to modernise laws that regulate the borderless Internet. The laws must spur innovation, but also protect timeless value. Who owns your data? Who has control over the data? And who can access the data? These are some essential questions that need to be asked.

Three, we should increase public-private collaborations against cybercrime. “To fulfill the promise of a digital world we must have a plan to take on cyber threats,” she said, urging governments and private organisations to work together as our digital connections increase.

The liberalisation delusion

Is the democratic liberal system the only regime that delivers results? The discussion about reframing the world can be viewed through the perceived infallibility of the liberal, democratic system. “Such a system was considered the end of humanity’s ideological evolution,” Prof Quah noted.

Not quite. Many systems outside of the western liberal orbit have delivered on the elixir of economic growth. China has taken more than 600 million people out of poverty in the past 15 years and is now the largest economy in the world. Singapore now has a per capita GDP higher than the US.

In 2016 the emerging world has caught up with the advanced western economies. “The vision that liberalisation promised has been proven wrong, and it is fine with us because the world is a better place as a result of it,” said Prof Quah.

Sure, the world’s economic gravity has shifted due to changes in China and the rest of the emerging world, but this has been accompanied by some rather ‘’ugly changes”, such as the hate crimes that are increasing across the UK post-Brexit. Thus, Prof Quah urged that global leadership was up for grabs.

The role of public policy schools

The discussion would not be complete without acknowledging the role of public policy schools.

Using the LKY School as an example, Dean Mahbubani elaborated on the school’s world-class collaborations such as with the Harvard Kennedy School. The LKY School was also the first Asian school to join the Global Public Policy Network (GPPN) established by Columbia SIPA, the London School of Economics and Sciences Po. Such collaboration gives students access to the brand of a western university along with a keen insight into Asian policy issues.

In conclusion, Mr Tan highlighted that reframing the world requires big ideas, practical politics and policies in equal mix.

Speaking of the issues that Singapore is grappling with right now, he pointed out that Singapore is not immune to forces that drove Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“I know we benefit from being open. Our diversity brings in companies and generates employment. Globalisation means growth for some, and the prospect of losing one’s job for the other, because their lives are not richer than before. The shape of reality does not cover the inequalities of globalisation,” he said.

The ideas that will reframe the world are predicated on an ethos that challenges the old narratives. At the end of the day, the new answers must come wrapped in a sense of purpose that meets the needs of many over the needs of the few – the holy grail of public policy.


From left to right: Dr Parag Khanna, Prof Danny Quah, Prof Wang Gungwu, Minister Tan Chuan Jin, Prof Kishore Mahbubani,Dr Astrid S. Tuminez