Little Red Dot Packs A Punch

JONATHAN MCCLORY, a partner at consultancy firm Portland, shares his thoughts on how Singapore can continue to drive positive global change.



eing based in London, I regularly hear and, indeed, am guilty of occasionally deploying the old adage that the United Kingdom “punches above its weight”. It is shorthand for saying that despite being a (relatively) small island, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the global population, Britain has an outsized influence in shaping global economic and political affairs. If there was one other (relatively) small island that could legitimately claim to punch above its weight, it would doubtless be Singapore.

Singapore is extremely interesting. Its development from a tiny, third-world island nation to a first-world power is a remarkable achievement for a country with a population of five million packed into 719 sq km.

Jonathan McClory is a partner at London-based, communications and public affairs consultancy Portland, and an associate of the Institute for Government, an independent charity and think tank focused on increasing government effectiveness. He is a specialist in soft power, public diplomacy, cultural relations and place branding, which encompasses nation, region and city branding.

“As Singapore begins its next 50 years, it does so from a position of strength as a widely-admired nation. By sharing its technical expertise, encouraging ethnic integration and promoting Singaporean creativity and culture, the country can play an even larger global role.”

Jonathan McClory

Perhaps Singapore’s single greatest strength has been its ability to lead by example on issues that many nations continue to grapple with, primarily economic development, effective governance, ethnic cohesion and, increasingly, sustainable urban planning.

Its well-documented development story is nothing short of an economic miracle fuelled by a triumph of will over adversity. But its success is built on much more than dollars and cents. It is also a remarkable example of a cohesive multi-ethnic society, a fact that is often under-appreciated. While far too many countries struggle with ethnic and sectarian divisions, Singapore has made its diversity a strength. It is also home to some 1.5 million foreigners – nearly 30 per cent of its total population. Not many other countries are so open and tolerant, which is a major part of Singapore’s attraction and, indeed, its contribution to the world.

Another of Singapore’s key assets is its built environment, and the way the island has been planned, developed and maintained. As metropolises around the world struggle to keep up with expansion and growth, Singapore’s own experience in intelligent and sustainable urban planning is hugely attractive to international partners that can benefit from Singaporean best practice. For Singapore, sharing technical expertise in this regard can be important in strengthening existing international partnerships and building new ones.

Singapore, having recently celebrated 50 years of independence, faces new challenges as it continues to move forward as an engaged member of the global community. The story of its first 50 years was almost exclusively internal, focusing on the successful transformation from developing to developed economy. Looking forward to the next 50 years and beyond, however, Singapore must transition from the internally-focused narrative of its successful transformation to an externally-focused one, based on how it can and will drive positive global change.

This is not to say that Singapore has not been globally engaged. Initiatives like the Singapore Cooperation Programme, which coordinates technical assistance to developing countries, and the Singapore International Foundation, which builds critical people-to-people links globally, are testament to the nation’s positive contribution. But there is much more that can and should be done.

Strengthening Singapore’s international engagement needs to start with a new strategic narrative, setting out the country’s direction and how it will drive positive global change. On the technical side, the government should redouble its efforts to share its expertise in economic development, governance, infrastructure and urban planning. After all, the key behaviour of an engaged global citizen is making a positive contribution to the international community.

But there is a softer side to improving international relationships too. Most people come to understand other countries through experiencing their cultures. This is an area Singapore needs to work on. Not because there is a lack of culture or cultural production in Singapore – quite the opposite, in fact, but because the vast majority of the global public has not had an opportunity to engage with its culture. The culture and creativity that quickly envelop any visitor to Singapore is seldom felt outside of the Asean region.

As Singapore begins its next 50 years, it does so from a position of strength as a widely-admired nation. By sharing its technical expertise, encouraging ethnic integration and promoting Singaporean creativity and culture, the country can play an even larger global role.

It will continue to punch above its weight, of course; but just how far above is up to the ambitions of its people. I hope Singaporeans set their sights very high indeed.

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