The Singapore Summit: An exercise in confidence building

by Joshua

The Trump-Kim Summit heralds a new era, one that can end the last major surviving geopolitical remnant of the Cold War.

The summit was historic in 3 ways:

  1. It was the first meeting between a US President and a North Korean Supreme Leader
  2. It promises to dismantle the last remnants of the Cold War
  3. If successful, it will represent a major realignment of international geopolitics

It was a honour for Singapore and her inhabitants to be chosen to host such a monumental event.

Singapore affirmed itself to be a significant player in the international stage, and capable of punching above its weight to host an event of such scale and significance. Kudos to the Singapore government and her people on the success of the summit.

From a geopolitical standpoint, hosting the summit was important for Singapore because it promised to bring end instability and enhance the security of the region. Singapore is a small nation which relies on a stable global ecosystem to thrive. The country does not have the means to engage larger powers in an open military confrontation. Furthermore, political stability on the international level facilitates international trade, the blood that sustains Singapore’s economy. Thus, it was within the national interest of the nation to host such an event. And as fate has it, Singapore was chosen by both Kim and Trump to host the summit here.

Yet, despite the monumental significance attached to this event, a segment of the population has chose to overlook the benefits that hosting this summit has brought, but choose instead to focus on the seemingly hefty price tag of the summit – S$20 million.

Those who argue against hosting the summit cite the fact that that sum of money could have been invested in society such as education, healthcare or to help the less fortunate cope with the rising costs of living. Their arguments can be distilled to the fact that the government should care more about bread and butter issues domestically rather than interfere with global events that do not have any tangible effect on the livelihoods of the people.

From a globalist standpoint, such arguments are narrow-minded, and has to be corrected. One could refute it by reframing the expenditure in terms of the per capita cost of the summit. S$20 million divided my the total population equates to a S$4 per capita cost, or the equivalent of a simple meal at the hawker centre. Furthermore, the bulk of the cost was spent in Singapore, engaging local security and event-management contractors. There would be a net positive trickle-down effect on Singapore’s economy.

While these arguments and counter-arguments warrant merit and should be discussed further, it goes beyond the focus of this article. What I’d like to highlight is that these ‘narrow-minded’ sentiments deserve greater thought, than to be brushed off as mere rants.

Singapore’s society has been plagued by a series of social ills. These include frequent public transportation breakdown, rising costs of healthcare and public housing, underemployment and increasing competition from foreign workers. This list is not exhaustive. These problems are not new and there are ongoing attempts to resolve these issues. However, until the effort to alleviate social grievances are completed, and social ills alleviated, it is unlikely that Singaporeans will be satisfied.

Furthermore, the government needs to up their game when it comes to public communication with society. The government has not been very eloquent when it comes to presenting their proposals to the citizens. Take for example, the political uproar of the Population White Paper that was published back in 2013. The government announced its aim to accommodate 6.9 million people. The outcry was severe. With 5.4 million people, the citizens were already feeling the tensions from an over-stressed public transport network, intense job and housing competition contributing to a loss in national identity. Just thinking about a 1.5 million population increase brought even more stress to the population.

Cherian George, a Singaporean academic and critic of the Singapore government, suggested that had the government framed the argument in terms of boosting Singaporeans’ well-being on more humane terms, rather than hard economic indicators, the public might have been more accepting of the White Paper. While the White Paper was well-intentioned in that it promised continued economic growth, the technocrats that staffed the bureaucracy delivered the proposal that struck a negative emotional chord which ultimately caused the proposal to backfire.

Singapore’s government needs to pay heed to the underlying discontent, and not be distracted by the success and limelight of hosting the international summit. Yes, Singapore has pulled a tremendous feat for a small nation. But the government should not lose sight of its constituency and become complacent. The societal ills that we face pales in comparison to the logistical and management hurdles that the government faced when organising the summit at such short notice. The success of the summit should give the government a confidence boost to tackle problems instead of an ego lift.