SINGAPORE: As a small country, Singapore needs to expect the worst possible scenarios to navigate the year ahead, say observers – especially if 2017 turns out to be anything like 2016, where many failed to predict several momentous and world-rocking developments.
“The failure to see what was happening worries me quite deeply,” said Dr Shashi Jayakumar, Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Because if you look at the Singapore point of view, we are a small country and we are vulnerable. We cannot afford to be consistently and strategically surprised in that way.”
Dr Jayakumar was speaking at Channel NewsAsia’s World Review 2016 panel discussion (telecast Thursday, Dec 29 at 8pm), which looked back on events such as Brexit and the United States Presidential Election. The outcomes – Britons voting to leave the European Union, and Americans electing tycoon Donald Trump – had blindsided pollsters, academics and the media.
These are a reminder that “anything is possible”, said fellow panelist Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. “The lesson we should learn from this is that the parameters as what see as expectable are much wider.
“There are dangerous possibilities out there that may well come to pass.”
President-elect Donald Trump (Photo: AFP)
Some of those “dangerous possibilities” were addressed by the panel, which included Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Dr Li Nan, senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute.
One is the situation in the South China Sea, and the growing nervousness in the US-China relationship since Mr Trump’s victory.
The possibility of a serious misstep is a real worry, said Dr Jayakumar. “With a hawkish and, by and large, untested (Trump administration) team, you can foresee a situation where a few months in, or a year into a Trump presidency, there is a grave tactical miscalculation on either side.”
He added: “(From) the Singapore angle, diplomatically, it seems quite clear that there is some unhappiness on the part of the Chinese ... and Singapore was just told by China, ‘Look, you cannot maintain this equilibrium between the US and China anymore’.”
Jakarta’s gubernatorial campaign may be another important turning point for Indonesia, and by extension, the region. Dr Huxley observed: “Does it continue to be a country that is characterised by secular governance or Pancasila - or is it a country that is dominated by Islamism and becomes gradually, over time, less tolerant?”
Jakarta’s incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his Chinese nickname Ahok, is on trial for allegations of blasphemy. Said Dr Jayakumar: “If (the hard-liners) succeed in downing Ahok it does say something about the long-term direction of Indonesian politics… perhaps down the line, more intolerant.”
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (left) is on trial for blasphemy following his remark about a passage in the Quran. (Photo: AP)
These are changing winds that Singapore should pay heed to, said Ambassador Chan. “We are going to look into the next few years where religion, my guess, is going to play a much bigger role in the political process in our neighbouring countries,” she said.
“That is important to note… because it would impact Singapore.”
REAL WORLD, NOT FANTASY WORLD
In a separate interview on the sidelines of the discussion, she emphasised the need for Singaporeans to “really understand the world we live in and the world as it operates, not to be lulled into a kind of ‘la la land’ - but also not to be too cynical and suspicious”.
Watch: Chan Heng Chee on the challenge for Singapore diplomacy
But Dr Jayakumar sounded the alert for insidious cyberattacks in the form of misinformation and fake news, such as Russia’s alleged meddling in the US elections.
Noting that Singapore should not think itself immune no matter how improbable it may seem, he said: “The mistake we make in this part of the world is to assume that these are Western-Russian issues and could never happen here.
“But if you think about it, if a larger power wants to influence the state of play within the Singapore polity itself - and we should not rule this out - to convince or sway a certain segment of the population… this become a serious cyber-resilience issue.”
“Sometimes we are too occupied looking for the big cyber strike or the big terrorist attack that we do not realise that the things that bring us down in a lot more underhanded fashion are actually these insidious types of subversions,” he said.
More on globalisation, terrorism and events in Malaysia, on World Review 2016. It airs Dec 29, 8pm (SG/HK), with an encore telecast on Dec 30, 6pm.