You have been here before. As you settle into your comfortable seat for the long flight ahead, a voice crackles from the cockpit. “Our flying time today will be 12 hours, 40 minutes, and we expect a smooth journey ahead, but there looks to be some pockets of turbulence along the way,” your captain says, sounding vaguely assuring. “We suggest you keep your seat-belt on.” So was said on my recent Singapore Airlines flight home from holidaying abroad. It prompted several hours of meandering musings from 30,000 feet in the air about what lies ahead in the New Year. Some of the storm clouds that appear to loom on the political horizon include:
1. US-China: rivalries among frenemies
Three recent developments sum up the precarious state of relations between the world’s two main powers, now on a tentative 90-day hiatus while officials struggle to dial down simmering trade tensions.
First, Apple’s profits warning – its first since 2002 – sent global markets into a tailspin when they re-opened for trading at the start of the year, on concerns about the slowing demand in China and widening impact of the on-going Sino-US trade spat. Jittery investors regained their composure somewhat on Friday, while some continued to fret about the less than ominous beginnings.
On Thursday, China’s dramatic landing of a lunar probe on the far side of the moon signalled the country’s growing technological and economic prowess. Inevitably, this forced the world’s scientists, policy makers and commentators to shake off any holiday-induced stupor they might have been languishing under.
Such concerns about China were reflected starkly in the remarks by the new Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who stepped up to replace his predecessor James Mattis, who resigned over policy differences with President Donald Trump . In one of his first statements since taking on the job, he told civilian leaders of the US military, that for all the other strategic challenges around the world, their top priority was to focus on “China, China, China”.
This made plain that the shift to a mode of “strategic competition” with China first mentioned in a US defence position paper last January is very much part of a nascent Washington consensus.
The latest issue of Foreign Affairs reflects this,with its cover story headlined, Who will run the world? In the lead essay, the US-based publication’s editor Gideon Rose laments how much the Trump administration’s view of the world is at odds with the liberal global order that American leaders have sought to foster for decades. “Trumpianism is about winning, which is something you do to others. The (liberal world) order requires leading, which is something you do with others,” he notes.
In any case, those who dismiss the sunny internationalist outlook as a “fairy tale”, believe “its day is done”, he adds. “Americans don’t want it. The world does not want it. US power is declining; China’s is rising. A return to great -power conflict is inevitable; the only question is how far things will go.”
Just how far things go in the months to come matters greatly to many countries, not least Singapore, which have thrived on the open, rules-based international trading order, and are loath to see the rise of a new great power rivalry that will force an awkward “with-me-or-against-me’ taking of sides.
Some are now saying that a new Cold War, between the US and China, is likely if not inevitable. Yet, most commentators agree that this is a blind alley no one wants to go down, so the question that arises is whether leaders – and their voters – will have the wisdom to avoid doing so.
Perhaps the wise words of US President Franklin Roosevelt, who helped shaped the post World War II global order, as quoted by Rose in his essay, might help focus minds. “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not ostriches, nor as dogs in a manger. We have learnt to be citizens of the world, members of the world community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”
2. Malaysia-Singapore: have we not learnt?
Those words ring true on matters closer to home, where several bilateral issues flared up from out of the blue in the dying days of last year.
Disputes over airspace and maritime boundaries, food supplies and water prices, and talk of crooked bridges, have a deja-vu, “oh-so-yesterday” ring about them. Sadly, they smack of zero-sum thinking, and of a desire to be “winning, rather than leading” the way forward to better lives for the peoples of both countries.
3. 4G leaders: the end of the beginning
Significantly, these bilateral tensions come at a time of political transition on both sides of the Causeway.
Inevitably, Malaysia’s new-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will have to make way for a successor at some point, although to whom, or how this might unfold, remains a little hazy. The new leader will need to establish himself, domestically and internationally, hopefully without being saddled with bitter disputes that belong in the past.
In Singapore, while the speculation that raged for most of last year on the likely successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has finally ended, the handover process to the country’s 4G, or next generation of leaders, remains a work in progress, with the critical endorsement of the electorate having to be sought, quite likely later this year.
PM Lee spelt out the challenge for all concerned in plain terms in his New Year’s message: “Our model of governance is quite exceptional, and has served us well. It has enabled Singapore to make the most of what we have and stand out in a highly competitive world.
“Singapore politics cannot afford to be riven and destabilised by the rivalries, contestations and factions so often seen elsewhere. Instead, Singaporeans must stay united, and work together resolutely, to strengthen and renew our social compact.”
4. Brexit: flattering allusions or delusions?
Even as the clock ticks down to March 29, when the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, its Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – touted as a man who might replace PM Theresa May – was in Singapore, drawing parallels with how Britain might “plug into the international economic grid”, just as Singapore had done, and thrived, contrary to what many predicted in the 1960s.
While the remarks might be flattering, few Singaporeans would crave them, given that the economic implications of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal on how best to do so are grave. That would leave the UK adrift, and at odds with itself, at a time when the world could do with some phlegmatic British sense and sensibility.
5. Elections and events: expect the unexpected
All of the above will play out against the backdrop of major elections around the world, from Indonesia to India, Australia to Argentina. These, and other events, will throw up their share of surprises. Politicians focused on the short-term need to secure their own futures will be less inclined to take the long-term measures needed to grapple with the technological disruptions shaking industries and societies everywhere.
So, fasten your seat belts, everyone, as the turbulence ahead looks likely to make for a bit of a bumpy ride.
At tricky and testing times such as these, my mind drifts inexorably to words consigned to heart a long time ago, for solace and sustenance. So, along with my best wishes for the New Year, I offer you these lines from British poet Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses:
‘Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
(The writer is Editor-in-Chief, The Straits Times, Singapore)