The world is shifting, and the consequences for Singaporeans are profound


When I was in secondary school, I did terribly in Mandarin, much to my parents’ dismay. My dad would nag at me about how China would one day be a major player on the world stage.

But I had visited China a few times in the 1990s and 2000s as a kid. The city streets, strewn with rubbish and sewage, made me doubt my dad’s words. What would this place be like in the future? Could this place really one day rival the likes of the US? Europe? Japan? It seemed unlikely.

Turns out, I was dead wrong (in my defense, I was 14).

As a student in the 2010s, I saw affluent, middle-class Chinese students flood overseas universities. I watched in envy as my friends scored lucrative roles in Shanghai and Nanjing. Later on, Haidilao, Bytedance and Shopee set up shop in some of our swankiest offices.

Within a single decade, public sentiment about Chinese nationals went from ‘poor and ‘backward’ to ‘wealthy.’ That’s nothing short of meteoric.

There are two things I’ve gathered from this. The first, is that Singaporeans cannot afford to underestimate others, or be complacent.

The second is that massive waves of change happen slowly at first, then all at once. China’s ascent towards superpower status certainly did not happen overnight. Same with the demise of print newspapers and magazines.

Often, those that can ride the waves are those who spot it far away. Those that don’t, get swept up in it.

That brings us to today’s topic. What are the next big changes that are happening, and how can we take advantage of them?

Here are some swells emerging spotted on the distant horizon.

The decline of globalisation in the developed world

For the most part, Singaporeans have known globalisation as a force for good.

The reality is that there are full of winners and losers in the process. Those who can make use of cheaper labour from elsewhere get to increase their profits. Those who are unable to, suffer. The result? Huge wealth gaps in places such as the US and Europe.

In recent years, those who have not benefitted from globalisation are making their voice heard, causing more countries to look inward, and become more protectionist and nationalist.

Singapore relies heavily on a free and open world economy for success, so this spells trouble for us. There are few scenarios where Singapore survives without global trade.

The great irony is that it also is a bad thing for the countries who take the path of protectionism.

Protectionism in the long term means reduced competitiveness and fewer economic opportunities for the poorest.

What can Singaporeans do? As many countries turn inwards, Singapore needs to stay open and resist being protectionist — no matter how attractive the prospect might seem.

We will need to create deeper ties with the countries that still want to remain open (more on this later), hopefully hang in there until the wave of protectionism sweeps over.

We should also keep our doors open to countries that do want to forge ties with us.

The fourth industrial revolution

Most Singaporeans would agree that technology is a good thing. That’s because most of us have not gotten our jobs replaced by machines. Not yet, at least.

However, that might be about to change. While stuff like AI and automation are still in its infancy, they’re increasingly threatening any notion of an iron rice bowl.

Like globalisation, technology is another great driver of inequality. It allows small groups of people to get things done; to amass wealth and powers quickly.

It takes away opportunities from others.

What can Singaporeans do? If we don’t learn to utilise new technologies, others will. MNCs can use this to cut their Singaporean workforce, or outcompete Singaporean companies.

This is the brutal truth; no one owes Singapore a living.

However, as with protectionism, the key is not to bury our heads in the sand. After all, where would Singapore be if we did not adopt past technologies?

The next next next big thing

China? That’s old news.

This isn’t to say China is irrelevant, but rather, the fastest growing economies could be somewhere closer to home — South East Asia.

ASEAN collectively is ranked as the world’s top five largest economies. 65% of the population will be middle class, and over 60% will be under 35 by 2030.

Countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam have seen tremendous economic growth in recent years and are strong contenders to look out for.

In a best-case scenario, these are new customers or a skilled workforce for Singaporean businesses to tap on.

There are also opportunities for Singaporeans wanting to work overseas in the region.

In the worst-case scenario, Singaporeans could get outcompeted by people who cost less but are just as skilled.

Finally, it means that Singapore’s economy will have to stay more competitive in order to stand out amongst the growing economies in ASEAN.

What can Singaporeans do?

There are quite a few ways we can extend our competitiveness. Here are some of them:

Focus on creativity and ideas.

For years, industries such as manufacturing may have driven Singapore and Asia’s economic success, but this may not be enough to bring us up the value chain.

If anything, this tells us that workers in Asean economies need to move from becoming the hands of an organisation to becoming the brains.

We and some of our neighbours are also investing heavily in their people and innovation infrastructure.

Management and expertise.

In the same way expats now lead a team of Singaporeans here, we might have to do the same in a neighbouring country as well.

Of course, doing so will need you to possess the proper skills and management.


I’ve seen many friends who can speak and write Mandarin confidently score lucrative jobs in cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou.

In the future, it could be languages such as Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese or Tagalog that give Singaporeans an edge in the workplace.

Understanding different cultural norms.

Part of fitting in with an organisation will mean learning its norms and cultures.

It would be unwise to assume that cultures or norms are the same everywhere, or that one type of culture is superior to another.

As the saying goes: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Build a strong network and develop a global perspective.

In many of our neighbouring countries, taking an international flight is a once-in-a-few-years-event that requires long-term planning, as well as careful budgeting.

One of the biggest advantages young Singaporeans have over their neighbours is the ease of travel, thanks to the strong Sing dollar and Singapore passport.

Every country in the entire ASEAN is within 3.5 hours from Singapore.

With the ease of travel, whether is it for work, education, community work or leisure, comes the ability to build a network across different countries, exposure to different cultures, languages, and a global perspective.

But if you’re unable to travel, another way to develop this network can also be befriending students on foreign exchange who may be studying with you, or overseas colleagues and interns in your workplace.

Singapore is prosperous today, but that can change

In this part of the world, young Singaporeans are armed with an almost unfair advantage; this is a privilege built up over decades from the sacrifices of past generations.

While it’s good to be proud of our achievements (strong passport, nice airport, etc), we must be careful not to assume we are the centre of the universe.

I like to think of us as a small well, full of water in a region where water doesn’t come by easily.

It is tempting to stay in the well at the moment, to soak up our achievements and get caught up in navel-gazing.

But if history serves as a guide: Things often seem rosy. Until they are not.

Without a global perspective, there’s the risk we become protectionist, shun technology, and ignore the world events happening around us.

The consequences of that are dire, especially for a small nation like Singapore.

After all, the frog who insists on staying in the well, risks drying up with the water.

Stay woke, salaryman.

A message from our sponsor, National Youth Council (NYC)

The world is shifting, and it’s undeniable that Asian countries are making their mark in the global economy.

To adapt with the changing waves, having a deep understanding of the social, cultural and political workings of Southeast Asian countries, China and India can really help you to maintain your competitiveness on the global stage.

NYC’s Asia-Ready Exposure Programme (AEP) provides Singaporean youths an outlet to understand the sociocultural, political and economic dimensions of the up-and-coming cities in ASEAN member states, China and India (ACI).

This is done through 3 phases:

  • Preparation: Learn about the language, cultural norms and business etiquettes of ACI through specially curated resources such as e-learning modules and webinars.
  • AEP project: Undertake a regional exposure project hosted by NYC and its partners to gain skills and experience in navigating the economic climate of different business sectors overseas
  • Closure: Round up your experience with facilitated debrief sessions to draw out key learnings

If you’re interested in learning more about participating in AEP and understanding more about how the various developments in Asia affect us, check out this page here.

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