The Future I See…
By Rai Vikhnod
At the inaugural Keep It Going event organized by STORM magazine, the emphasis was on sustainability. But the discussions were wide and varied, which reflected the theme of bringing sustainability to a personal level. The anecdotes and opinions were suggestive of a deeper desire among the panelists to want to make a difference. But in a world dominated by posturing governments and multi-billion-dollar corporations with self-serving interests, the challenge is always to be heard.
To an appreciative audience of around 220, the first of the day’s session on July 18 at ONE°15 Marina brought together thinkers and builders from a variety of walks of life. On stage, author, Rick Koh, led a couple of diplomats, an entrepreneur, a thinker/futurist/poet, security specialist and a farmer who has never farmed, on personal journeys to describe what they felt when faced with the open-ended thought: “The future I see…”.
The result was a tremendously varied series of responses ranging from the consequences of deforestation and water pollution to the impact of haze, money and self-actualisation, with many other contributions in between from the audience.
Ambassador Tormod Endresen of Norway is a career diplomat who represents a country known for its sustainable ways.
Arthur Tay, Chairman of SUTL, which expanded its regional interests from selling cigarettes and wines to developing lifestyle activities such as establishing ONE°15 and representing Nike.
Sam Olsen, the Managing Director at Kroll Advisory Solutions, has seen action in Iraq — rebuilding its police force — and assesses the risk profiles of companies.
Ambassador Michael Tay made a name for himself in Russia during his stint as Singapore’s ambassador, and has diverse activities, including running a think tank, owning a restaurant and conceptualising a jazz festival.
Prof Kirpal Singh is a celebrated author, lecturer and futurist who makes out-of-the-box thinking de rigueur behaviour.
Ivy Singh-Lim calls herself the gentle warrior and now works the land by growing vegetables ather farm in Kranji, Bollywood Veggies.
Grappling With The Hose
Rick Koh’s comment “sustainability is about allowing us to live life as fully as we can” prompted Arthur Tay to respond that today’s world seems to be constantly “firefighting”.
“We are just solving some problem or other before something else turns up next week for us to solve. We always react to things that happen and then we try to firefight to correct it. We need leadership to accept that the world is going to deteriorate. But we need leaders in their industries to do the right thing and get it right. Seven years ago, when I was developing this marina, the boardwalk was 3m above the boats. Today, the water has risen. The gangway before had an inclination, but today it’s parallel (to the boat). Just like the air and the haze, the water goes around the world; you can’t stop it. It’s levelling out. The corporate world and governments must take the lead in solving this. The big companies must take the initiative — since you are fortunate to benefit, then you should contribute towards the upkeep of the planet.”
From the floor, Chong Huai Seng, a private investor, commented that “for corporations to gain respect we need to give them awards and incentives. Otherwise how do we get them to raise the game?”
Prof Kirpal Singh’s counter: “There’s an old ancient wisdom, that the larger you are, the more you should give rather than expect. That’s where real fulfillment is — generosity of spirit. Everyone wants respect — from big companies to the youngsters. With modern technology and instant communication, we could see a global uprising taking place in 30 minutes, if the young people who are unemployed and restless get their act together. To me, that is a greater worry,” says the lecturer at the Singapore Management University.
Too Many People, Too Few Resources?
Prof Singh grew up worrying about the human population explosion. Today, his worries are that it might be sliding the other way.
“China has a lot to worry about. It has been so effective with its one-child policy, the 1.5 billion population could go down to 1.2 billion or even one billion in the next couple of decades. The economic planning might be skewed. The worry is where are the pockets where population growth will take place? Philippines, with a very Catholic population, is trying to bring about birth control, but the Church is opposing it. But with Ireland adopting birth control, there are major shifts taking place.”
Sam Olsen is of the opinion that the global population is not going to tax the planet’s resources, provided it’s well managed. “I don’t think eight or nine billion people will be a problem for the Earth to handle. There are vast tracts of land in the Ukraine that are not plowed. But the pinch point will be water…and the huge amount of waste.
“We see that government can create a good framework, but when it comes to energy, the carbon taxing model needs to be brought to a global level. It has made businesses wake up and realise carbon is cost. Water and other scarce resources need to be similarly tackled so there is a global framework. Money will still be a hugely important element of the world economy. We have to use money to change the behaviour to allow us to be more sustainable.”
Ambassador Endresen echoed this sentiment: “The common point between water and energy is pricing. We treat it as if it’s free. Putting a price on water will make people realise how scarce it is and invest in desalination plants. The same goes for energy. We use 1,500kg of steel to transport one human being from home to office. That stems from the fact that the cost of energy is not reflected in the price of petrol.”
Putting on his futurist turban, Prof Singh’s mind soars with anticipation as the pressures of ground travel get the better of us. “Our transportation system is going to change a lot and will impinge upon our thoughts on sustainability. Everywhere in the world, new roads are being built, but people are frustrated from owning cars, driving cars, sitting on buses. Ground transport is going to go through revolutionary change, or more and more people are going to be less interested in going from A to B. If it takes me an hour-and-a-half by car to visit someone, the excitement is not there. So I’d rather go to Changi airport and fly. I see the aviation industry taking off in a huge way.The sky is immense whereas the physical earth is limited.”
A Helping Hand
Ambassador Endresen is optimistic about the future, though two issues play on his mind — deforestation and fresh water. “There is less than 3% of fresh water in the world. Of that, only 0.5% is available to us as drinking water. With the growth of the world population — nine billion in 2050 — water will become a scarce resource. Water is the number one strategic resource that cannot be replaced with anything else, and with the growing divide it’s not a good scenario if the rich people have access to water, and the poor people have not. It can lead to mass migration.
“Deforestation continues to happen at an alarming pace. Tropical rainforests are the lungs of our planet. But I’m encouraged by how people are mobilised around certain issues. That’s the only good thing about the haze, to see how public pressure became very tangible for political leaders and how they have react.”
Norway has set aside S$750 billion as incentive for landowners on the planet not to clear forests. This has worked in Brazil, but in Indonesia, the lack of reliable sources to disburse the funds is holding Norway back.
Prof Singh views intervention as important, but it has to be managed. “Governments are aware that intervention is possible at the natural level. The worry is when we intervene we may upset people and generate new troubles.”
Lim Soon-Hock, the Managing Director of Plan B felt indifference leads to inaction: “The issue is that many of the decision makers may not be around to experience the harm of not taking action today. So we are all finding ourselves in the NATO stage — No Action Talk Only.”
Arthur Tay believes corporations rather than governments are better equipped to show the way: “I still emphasise that corporations can influence the individuals. Today, corporations are very powerful. They make a lot of money and they consume or manufacture products, and they can influence a lot of other sectors. I used to believe that the United Nations was actually supposed to lead the world. But today, many countries are bankrupt for the way they mismanaged their funds in the monetary system. So, I still believe it’s the corporations that should start leading. The ones that make a lot of money must return back to society and help this sick world we are living in.”
Ambassador Tay reckons systems that may have outlived their usefulness should be reviewed: “Many of the problems we face today are caused by the fact we think of the world in terms of borders. All our problems are trans border. I feel the people qualified to provide solutions will be businesses because it’s about crossing borders to have dealings, and NGOs and humanitarian organisations because they see the world in terms of what I can do across my border to help the other country.”
To Ambassador Tay, sustainability is not a science. “It’s an art. It’s about people. Whether the government likes it or whether businesses do it, it’s actually the individual that matters.”
He spent the first year of his stint as ambassador in Russia understanding the people by its culture. In part it was because “the Russians didn’t know who Singapore was, and where it was. They didn’t like us because during the Cold War we were not their allies. Plus we are too small. Russia has always had an empire mentality, which means if you’re small you do not matter.”
Having taken in the arts scene, he was galvanised into action by a moving work by leading Russian composer, Vladimir Martynov. He commissioned Martynov to compose a piece of music about Singapore for string quartet. But after Martynov returned from a visit to Singapore, he said that the Republic could not be described by a string quartet or a chamber piece. It had to be a symphony.
“Martynov said Singapore was the kind of utopia that Russia could not create. Russia’s version of utopia was static, meaning it was the end of history; we have arrived. Singapore’s idea of utopia is that you are never there. You keep on striving for it; seeking it.”
Throwing caution to the wind, Ambassador Tay countered that it had to include a choir, swelling the ensemble 40 times by the time Singapore: A Geopolitical Utopia premiered in March 2007. “I had to raise funds, but in the process the Russian media loved me. They put me on the front page of magazines and newspapers, and on TV. They said you are doing good for our country. Our oligarchs, tycoons and rich government does not sponsor our own musicians. It was historic because this was the first commission after 20 years.
“That changed mindsets. If you want to change the world. You start from the first person, then the second. If you can change the minds of a big country, you can change the minds of anything. But you must have passion. Don’t talk to businesses, because they have their own vested interest. Governments have their own political interests. But people will have a stake in the planet because their children will grow up to inherit the planet.”
The 3 Es of Sustainability + 1 More
Sam Olsen, the country boy who studied economic anthropology, saw battle in Iraq and now views the world through degrees of security risk, emphasises the importance of the 3Es of sustainability — Economic, Environmental and Social Equity.
“The power that money brings to make your life better is something the whole world aspires towards. If we ignore that, we are denying to ourselves the most important thing that people want — to improve themselves.”
He cites the example of Nigeria as a place where the good of the masses has been forsaken for immediate gratification. “Nigeria sits on huge reserves of gas. The government decided that it was more profitable for the gas to be burnt off at the oilfields and tapped at that level than it was to send that gas into the power station to provide electricity for the population. As a result there are about 90 gas power stations not working. If they had tweaked the economic sustainability element to make it so that there was better return for the government by taxing the electricity generated from the power plants then they would not have had that problem. This was a problem resulting from the misalignment of the economic and environmental sustainability. And that had a big impact on social equity, and people didn’t have electricity to improve their lives.”
But, Olsen is optimistic about the future. “There’s a realisation that the current world economic system cannot continue as it has done. There’s a huge rise in the inequality between the generations. The baby boomers are taking it all out, leaving huge pension liabilities that are unfulfillable. The future is getting very difficult for the younger generations, and the big chasms between the generations and between the haves and have-nots will combine to force changes to the global business and finance environment.
“It’s a good opportunity to reengineer the global business environment in terms of the environmental sustainability of the planet and its social equity sustainability.”
Ken Hickson, author of The ABC Of Carbon, felt there should be a fourth E — energy. “The critical factor is Energy. Issues such as carbon footprint relate largely with what we do with energy.”
Seeking And Finding Yourself
Prof Singh has long eschewed the norm and has been looking for new trends that may be obvious or sneak up on society.
Among the obvious observations is the much-touted social divide. “For every individual who makes it, there are thousands who cannot have their basic needs met. Even though we are moving up, the gaps are growing bigger. Graduates here are hungry for more degrees, while there are millions of people scavenging for food.
“At our age, Singapore is becoming a problem. I was in Cambodia with three other Singaporeans who were retired. They said Singapore was chasing them out. For $500 you can live in semi-luxury in Phnom Penh. So, it’s a more affordable option to live in places like Cambodia. The thinking of Singaporeans is starting to change,” he observes.
Age is a factor that impacts all of us. Planet Earth is no exception.
“The Earth needs viagra to keep it going. The planet is getting old and needs help,” Prof Singh quipped.
For an educationist in an industry that prides itself on real estate and swanky campuses, Prof Singh has some unorthodox views on the future of education. “The idea of school buildings is becoming a problem because knowledge is available by smartphones, tablets, computers…. Some schools in America are starting to experiment with the flip-flop method of learning. For centuries we send students to school to learn something, and we come home to apply it through homework. Now we flip it around and we learn at home and then you go to school once or twice a week where the teachers test your capacity and ability to apply what you’ve learnt. A lot of people say this is going to be disruptive, but the future is going to be disruptive. Creativity is all about disruption. Innovation is all about disruption.
“It is absolutely boring for my students to sit and listen to anyone talking for five minutes. Their whole manner of learning has changed from the literal to the visual. So a lot of our lecturers should be sent back to drawing schools to learn how to draw; it’s easier to communicate through images.
“But there’s give and take. And the problem here is the diminishment of the capacity to think in complex ways. This means there will be a few of us doing all the thinking, and the rest following; which runs counter to self-actualisation.”
Ambassador Tay’s take on self-actualisation in Singapore takes on a more rudimentary approach: “Singapore’s concept of self-actualisation is driven by a very elitist mentality. Nobody wants to be a taxi driver. I’ve lived in Japan before, and Japan provides a solution because the taxi driver is proud to be a taxi driver; the road sweeper has pride in sweeping the roads as clean as possible. That is the kind of self-actualisation we need in Singapore. It should not be so driven by the idea that you have to be an elite to self-actualise.”
Waiting To Be Pricked
The cat among the pigeons, Ivy Singh-Lim left the plantation for the slick marina to crack jokes and fire up the room. “I’m half Singh and half Tan. So I’m half Indian and half Chinese, so I represent more than half the world,” she proclaimed to much laughter from the room.
“I’ve lived in the countryside for 12 years. When I sit in my country home in the evening, listening to the birds singing, it’s paradise. I think the world has a very positive future. But first the world must bring the most important letter back into their lives – ‘C’ for ‘conscience’.When people have conscience as a starting point it will be meaningful and effective. If you do not have a conscience you are not a human being. Conscience is a source of honesty and fairness, which is lacking so much in the world. Conscience is not just about making money, buying guns and acquiring power with it. Evil and stupid men and women are spending too much time killing each other in Asia, while there is starvation and natural disasters in an over-populated world. Mankind will become desperate. When mankind become desperate they will lose their way.”
But, having laid out the ills, Ivy switched tack: “I see many young people coming to my farm, where people are protecting the good in each other, in their communities, and in the environment. I see a future where anything with a heartbeat will be treasured and be given a chance to survive.
“I see God in all of us. And knowing that I am God, I can create, I can destroy or I can nurture. Unless you bring God back in all of us, we have no hope.
“The Earth will carry on. We will not destroy it. We will destroy ourselves.”