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Here's How Singapore Can Stay in the Game

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I have been spending the last few days in Singapore at a very interesting conference sponsored by Nanyang Technological University and the Asian Development Bank Institute on the theme of the evolving de-centralized global economic architecture. Such a theme highlights the interest that a small but smart state such as Singapore has in maintaining a balance between the need for rules and regulations in the global order, and the space for innovative practices at the domestic level to keep up its competitive status.

Although my focus concentrated on the global dimension, as part of a wider ongoing study on how small states have responded to the G20 summit process, I have been fascinated by the manner by which a differentiated connection between order and innovation percolates through the media coverage of internal and external political and policy issues.

The commentary that I have read argues consistently that the pivot on which the future of Singapore rests is via a form of facilitative inclusion promoted by an updated developmental state (Singapore Inc). Rules and regulations remain important, including of course the high standing Singapore enjoys in Transparency International's Corruption perception Index (the 5th "cleanest" in terms of public sector corruption after New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Sweden).

Yet, although a very high proportion of people who live in Singapore possess impressive financial assets (with one in every six households being above the $US 1 million asset level in 2010, the highest in the world), the clarion call from state officials is that the city-state (without natural resources or extensive hinterland, and relying heavily on human capital and institutional effectiveness) must keep innovating via continuous restructuring and productivity/skill enhancement.

As the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Tharman Shanmugaratnam (who is also the chair of the International Monetary and Financial Committee, the policy advisory committee of the IMF) put it in a recent speech: "Raising the quality of jobs and productivity is the only sustainable way to hold our own in the international marketplace, especially as China and other emerging players move up the value chain."

However, if demonstrating a sensitive awareness of the threat of competition -- and the need to keep ahead not only of other top-tier cities but so-called second tier cities which have become key drivers of global growth -- the contextual preference for Singapore is the privileging of both international and local-specific order.

This instinct to think in long-term systemic terms and not just in terms of short-term competitiveness advantage comes out in front via the relief expressed in Singapore's Straits Times that the election of Hong Kong's third Chief Executive under Chinese sovereignty will ensure "administrative certainty" -- balancing the immediate need for stability to prevent "governing gridlock" and "capital flight" while building confidence for Beijing to keep to a timetable for direct election in 2017 of the chief executive.

Such a concern for systemic order over excessive and arbitrary political innovation at the local level can be discerned further in the commentary on the ongoing saga of Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party boss in China. The explicit lessons learnt in Singapore about the downfall of Bo concerns the danger of excessive populism. If the Singapore media pointed out Bo's success in terms of economic growth and social improvements in Chongqing, they also point out more critically his political even cultural failings missed by prominent westerners in their lauding of Bo's vision (the media refrains from naming names, although the much publicized trip to Chongqing by Dr. Henry Kissinger in 2011 jumps out in the forefront of this trend).

These failings extended from a lack of regard to the rule of law to his "mass-campaign style." Reflecting on his own visit to Chongqing in 2011 one columnist, Peh Sheng Huei, said that Bo Xilai put his personal fancy before societal good on every issue from the much publicized "strike hard" campaign against crime gangs to the choice of tree planning in a major initiative, preferring the ginko tree over leafy banyan tree.

In its focus on the domestic necessity for the mix of sustained order and constant openness to new ideas about entrepreneurialism and risk taking, Singapore reflects the anxiety that every small state has built into it. What is different is not just Singapore's ability to position itself as a first-rank global city - but that it interprets not only its positional attributes but the standing of its most robust competitors (whether small or massively big) through such a rigorous framework in terms of the global context and its own interests. Both at home and abroad Singapore abhors messiness.

(This article first appeared in Andrew Cooper's CIGI Blog Worlds of Global Governance.)