Alexis Ong: Singapore, the perfect world capital

Alexis Ong: Singapore, the perfect world capital

Unscathed Singapore with its efficiency, neutral politics and unthreatening, clean, green image may be a model for the world to follow, but what will it cost the nation

As much as I’d love to disagree, Edward Carr’s recent Intelligent Life piece makes a near-irrefutable argument for why Singapore would make a perfect world capital.

He makes the sage observation that federal capitals like Brasilia and Lagos were “nobody’s first choice” -- and his criteria for a world capital are more than accurate of our island city: “purpose-built”, “unthreatening,” “doused with official culture”, efficient, and neutral.

The bottom line is, we’re a young, fairly unscathed country, without the same collective psychological baggage as candidates like New Delhi and Beijing and New York. People do, after all, joke about how we’re like the Asian Switzerland, but even Geneva -- although it remained neutral -- has that bad World War II juju floating over its head.

Singapore has yet to be scarred. Carr thinks so, too.

He says we fit the bill “not because it is the world’s greatest city, but because it is the closest match to the ideal capital of an increasingly federal world. The city-state has no enemies. It does not take sides in geopolitical arm-wrestling. It has one foot in Asia and one in the West. It is a fabulously well-connected trading hub. Its people are educated high-achievers. It ticks along like clockwork.”

When I first read this article, the teenage bleeding heart in me wanted to cry out in indignation. I spent most of my adolescence and late teenhood in pouty rebellion against many of Singapore’s social conventions and government policies. Admittedly, some of my old complaints sounded like they belonged on a “first-world problems” Livejournal post. But reading Carr’s piece made me realize that I’ve come a long way from hating on Singapore.

Rome was the capital of the world when morality and virtue were still discussed in black-and-white terms: good and evil, moral and immoral, right and wrong. Rome fit as a world capital, because it was a sign of the times, of the beliefs and attitudes of people back then.

Today, you need business skills and savvy to get things done. There is a lot more emphasis on tact and pragmatism. Carr is right when he says Brussels -- the seat of the European Union -- is boring. I’ve been there, I know. It’s boring for a reason -- nobody wants their best interests compromised by civilian uprising or a deviously-planned grassroots movement.

Order and efficiency helps to make the world go round.

And it’s safe.

Carr almost breaks out his Captain Obvious Hat when he points out that order and efficiency help to make the world go round. Can’t argue there. But at risk of diluting our young, precarious identity, should Singapore really aspire to this role?

Our government runs on a multicultural platform, and trying to be “The City” of the world would diminish the unique Singaporean voice that we have been working to cultivate for the past few decades.

Economics aside, think of how much we’ve come into our own over the past decade: a burgeoning cultural scene, some [recently] pleasantly surprising political concessions, and a growing, albeit passive sense of social liberalism.

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Sure, a lot of our national identity has been introduced by government campaigns and efforts to encourage unity. For instance, you automatically think of the words “clean and green” when confronted with Singapore’s public image, thanks to National Environment Agency’s eponymous campaign that began more than 40 years ago.

For the most part, our national identity hasn’t evolved organically, maybe because we’re just too young as a country -– but for how much longer can this be a valid excuse?

Singapore is still growing, and compared to the grand old histories of some other international cities, we’re still working through some teething problems.

To become a hypothetical world capital, focused on serving other countries’ needs, would mean inadvertently sacrificing a little bit of itself.

Are we ready for that?

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Alexis Ong.

Alexis Ong has a degree she doesn't use, but can read, write, and do some arithmetic. She's spent the last few years in Singapore and previously lived in New York and Boston.

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