Singapore slipped one place from 19 to 20 this year. Despite the fall, there are plenty of positives for the Lion City to take from its 2017 performance. Singapore remains the only Southeast Asian nation in the elite 30 and it has successfully defended its position at the top of the Enterprise sub-index. However, Singapore faces new challenges in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. A diplomatic row with China over the seizure of military vehicles used for training exercises in Taiwan brought the issue of Singapore’s long-standing neutrality to the fore, with observers questioning whether the republic’s uneasy balance between the United States and China can endure. At home, a high-profile public dispute over how to administer the late founding Prime Minister’s former home has drawn the wrong kind of attention to Singapore’s domestic politics. But looking ahead, Singapore’s soft power has ample room to expand. Next year, Singapore takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, allowing it to shape the agenda in South East Asia. Importantly, there is another opportunity coming to improve upon an area where Singapore has found it tough to find cut through with global audiences: culture. The bicentenary of Sir Stamford Raffles landing in Singapore is being seen as an opportunity to show what a global, multi-cultural, and open society the Lion City is – and has always been.
Enterprise continues to be Singapore’s leading soft power asset, but having gotten the basics of business and governance right, the ever-ambitious city-state is turning its attention to other metrics. The financial hub is also one of the most wired societies in the world, maintaining high scores in the Digital sub-index, while its much-vaunted education system received another boost this year after the country topped the global Pisa education rankings.
Despite some positive efforts by the government to improve the country’s appeal as a cultural centre, Singapore continues to struggle with growing a vibrant arts scene that reflects the rich diversity of its population. The republic’s persistently low Engagement scores are also reflective of its small diplomatic footprint in the world, and its relatively low participation in international organisations and treaties.
As the next chair of ASEAN, Singapore now has the chance to bask in the limelight and build a stronger diplomatic presence, while crafting a more definitive cultural identity to share with global audiences. The government should be thinking of ways to combine the vibrancy of its digital and business sectors with the many cultural offerings it possesses. And as a leader in the ‘smart cities’ movement, it can share its experiences with metropolitan leaders across the world. A recent showcase of its Gardens by the Bay on the BBC documentary “Planet Earth II” is a fine example of how Singapore holds real promise in reconciling nature and technology, and it can yet lead the way in charting the very future of the city.