Before you start reading this essay, try this quiz first (click on the image, or this link):
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, when asked during a morning talk show in September last month about what he would do about Aleppo in Syria, replied: “And what is Aleppo”? 20 days later he had his second “Aleppo moment”, when he was asked during a televised town hall meeting to name a foreign leader he respects. Mr. Johnson struggled, eventually settling with former Mexican president Vicente Fox after his running mate Bill Weld listed the last names of former presidents.
Such geopolitical faux pas is unacceptable for a candidate campaigning to be the American leader of the free world. Yet what about citizens – Singaporeans like you and me, in particular – and our responsibility to stay informed not only about the Syrian crisis, but also about developments around the world: from the refugee crisis and the United Nations (UN), to the rejected peace deal in Colombia, and to the rancorous presidential elections in the United States?
And given how globalised Singapore is, should this responsibility – premised upon arguments that there are pragmatic benefits, that it is important for policy-making and personal enrichment in Singapore, and that Singaporeans are also part of a common and shared humanity – be emphasised?
The lack of time, bandwidth, and ability
Another way of asking the question is: why do we struggle to pay attention?
The lack of time is an obvious reason. Singaporeans work long hours and already struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and a survey conducted by national family council Families For Life earlier this year found that about 50 per cent of Singaporeans feel that long working hours prevent them from spending more time with their families. How can we, thus, find the time to do more, beyond cursory flips of the newspaper or swipes of online news feeds?
Related to the lack of time is the lack of bandwidth. Choosing what news or regions to pay attention to is a chore. Choosing which news sources to read – especially with the proliferation of new websites and regurgitative news content – is even more daunting. Whether these websites and content are reliable, accurate, or authoritative cannot be taken for granted too.
And so what if we knew of global developments? Syria is 7,600 kilometres away from Singapore. The Colombian armed conflict involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began in 1964, a year before Singapore’s independence. And Singapore is but one of the many countries the United States is friendly with. Notwithstanding the expectations in the classroom or at the workplace, what good is knowledge of global affairs or events for, if it is not functional*, or if we are not compelled to – or able to – do something tangible in response?
Similar questions have been asked of the work at the UN Association of Singapore, where we run Model UN programmes, through which students between the ages of 14 and 18 discuss and debate issues – from nuclear disarmament to the rights of the child – before crafting hypothetical solutions. A common lament is that these solutions do not go beyond the rhetorical, and that unless these solutions materialise as actual policy proposals or initiatives little will be achieved.
Global developments matter to Singaporeans
So why should more Singaporeans set aside time and bandwidth for global news stories? What is the value of Model UN? And how can we be nudged to be a little more informed and involved?
The first pragmatic reason is Singapore’s reliance on globalisation (as illustrated by the quiz at the start of this essay), and the extent to which the country’s economic growth – and as a result, our employment and wages – is tied to forces around the world. These forces may be out of our control, but we can instead control how we respond to them. This is also why I think prime minister Lee Hsien Loong spent substantial portions of his National Day Rally speech in August this year, focusing on globalisation and developments around the world. The urgency is especially notable, since Mr. Lee has placed less emphasis on foreign affairs throughout his past 12 speeches.
Take three quick examples, on the impact of global issues. Diplomatic developments in the South China Sea – bearing in the mind the recent exchange of letters between Singapore’s ambassador to China and the editor-in-chief of a tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party – could affect relations with China, a major trading partner. Singapore’s economy has been dragged down by both the manufacturing and services sectors, leading to downgrades in growth forecasts for 2016. And the acceleration of technological advancement as well as the growing competitiveness of middle-income countries mean many employment opportunities are now under threat.
In 1985, then deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong also said:
“Running the United States is like being in command of an aircraft carrier. You will not capsize. Steering a small and young country is more like shooting rapids in a canoe. We are at the mercy of the external elements – the velocity of world trade expansion, the economic rocks, and the international political turns and twists. We need the best skills to survive the rapids” (emphasis mine).
Fulfilling intellectual curiosity and drawing active comparisons with Singapore are important for policy-making – of which all of us have a stake in. In the context of this second reason, the claim that Singapore is not like other countries is only defensible if Singaporeans seek out effective policies abroad, before evaluating their merits and applicability. After all, the success of Singapore was built upon the local and the global, and as the country’s economic advisor Dr. Albert Winsemius – for instance – looked around the world for new opportunities, for the best expertise.
For our personal benefit, adopting a more international view broadens our perspectives, and should encourage more interactions with foreigners, or perhaps even trips abroad, for work, study, leisure, or personal enrichment. It is an acknowledgement of a bigger world beyond our shores.
“And what is Aleppo?”
The third and final reason may seem abstract to some, though this appeal to a common and shared humanity could be the most compelling to some. It is hard to turn away from the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian boy found lying face-down on a Turkish beach, or the photograph of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old Syrian boy sitting silent and in shock at the back of an ambulance, after he was injured in an air-strike. Both photographs compel us to make sense of the Syrian refugee crisis and the ongoing onslaught in Aleppo, Syria, to imagine and pain and suffering.
What else can we do besides reading more? In the past week, in an election characterised by vitriol and vicious attacks, “The New York Times” wrote about President Barack Obama “the human being”, quoting his remarks from the memorial service for fallen Dallas police officers in July this year:
“For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering – accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones. There are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural, or man-made. All of us, we make mistakes. And at times we are lost. And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things – not even a President does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control over how we treat one another” (emphasis mine).
In a world torn by conflict and violence, it is too easy to be desensitised, to assume that casualties or deaths are business-as-usual. Action on the refugee crisis, on the negotiations in Colombia, or the American presidential elections may be beyond us, but not turning away from them is a good start. A Chinese refrain I grew up with, “修身、齐家、治国、平天下”, which loosely translates to “only through self-improvement and self-awareness, would one be capable of managing a family, governing a state, and contributing to the world”, I think is a timely reminder that if Singaporeans have aspirations to make the world a better place, learning how to respond to circumstances and to treat one another – as Mr. Obama would like us to do – are good starting points.
* There are deeper, I think philosophical questions that can be asked of the assumption that knowledge – and by extension, education – should necessarily be “functional”, but I am not adequately informed to do so.