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Complacency biggest danger for city-state

SINGAPORE -- As it turns 50, Singapore finds itself at a turning point. Its economy has matured and growth is not expected to come as easily -- or from the same areas -- as it once did. Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University and a well-known commentator on Singaporean politics and social issues, spoke with The Nikkei about the challenges facing the city-state today and what he thinks is in store for the next half-century.

Q: What do you think the next 50 years will be like for Singapore?

A: "Cautious optimism" are the words that come to mind. We have demonstrated that we can overcome challenges, and today's Singaporeans are in a far better position than they were 50 years ago. But the vulnerability remains. We still don't have resources; we still have to import much of our food and water. Land is limited, and the complexity of race and religion remains salient. Managing success is much harder than achieving success. We have not been seriously tested since 1965, which is fortunate, but because of that we have lacked opportunities to address our weaknesses.

     Despite the desperate economic restructuring effort led by the government, our levels of productivity and innovation are not as high as they should be. Singapore can survive by being economically relevant to the world, which means we always need to be ahead of the curve. The challenge is how to continue to be relevant to the global economy without undermining our national identity.

     The biggest fear I have is complacency, the sense that people feel they have arrived. I am worried that Singapore's youth have a growing sense of entitlement. I also fear that people will lose their desire to improve. The result of complacency will be stagnation. Once started, Singapore's decline would be quick because we don't have resources. People, companies or funds would leave the country. Even young Singaporeans might move away in search of greener pastures. Singapore's economic relevance also helps make it relevant to its own people. At 50, the country is coming of age, but if we think we have arrived at a place where we can constantly live this comfortable life, it is hubris. As [the late Prime Minister] Lee Kuan Yew, who was a realist, always said, the world doesn't owe us a living.

     Immigrants are our lifeblood. They come here with ambitions for success and work doubly hard. They are a good example of how open our society is, not only to people but to ideas. But there is a resistance among local-born Singaporeans to accepting large numbers of immigrants.  

Q: Economic success is what has united Singaporeans. Now that the country has achieved that, what is the next goal?

A: Singapore is now associated with being rich and successful. But if economic value is the only reason for one to be in Singapore, people will be transient and the country will become just a place, or a hotel, instead of home. Singapore has to have other values that make people loyal to the country, and Singaporeans have to decide what these values are.

Q: What should the government do?

A: Schools should be the platform for socialization, but we have focused so much on academic achievement. We should go back to emphasizing character and values, in a nice balance with teaching economic value. Government can set the tone by saying, "We've achieved most of our material needs; now we can afford to pay more attention to the nonmaterial aspects of life."

Q: Has Lee Kuan Yew's death changed Singaporeans' attitudes toward the country?

A: It is still early days, but I hope it will spur Singaporeans to look beyond themselves and think about how they can contribute in their own way to developing this country into one they can be proud of. It is strange that only at his passing have people come to realize what he has done. People were deeply moved at his passing. Hopefully, they will start thinking and turn their thoughts into action.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Mayuko Tani

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