By Invitation

What does a Smart Society look like?

Openness to talent is vital to Singapore's ambition to become a Smart Nation. That requires a more holistic view of immigration that recognises a shared patriotism between local and imported talent.

Singapore's recent Smart Nation Innovations Week and its hosting of the World Cities Summit served as tangible reminders to Singaporeans and thousands of visitors that the country is perhaps the world's foremost living lab for widespread deployment of new technologies from fibre-optic Internet to online government services and, soon, autonomous vehicles.

The Government has moved quickly across a wide spectrum of areas, but has rightly begun to emphasise that a nation can only be as smart as its citizens. That is why Enterprise Singapore and other agencies have been experimenting in recent years with incentives for small and medium-sized enterprises to introduce productivity enhancements such as using new technologies and encouraging workers to take up upskilling courses. With a healthy but ageing population and high life expectancy, Singapore is arguably ground zero for putting the notion of lifelong learning into practice. This is how a smart nation becomes a smart society.

A proactive approach to technology is the crucial factor in ensuring that all Singaporeans are future-ready. Home sensors and telemedicine mean affordable and high-quality care for the growing ranks of elderly pioneers. Reskilling centres and digital job-matching services can effectively sustain the professional relevance of the semi-retired. Industry leaders - both domestic and foreign firms - must strengthen cooperation with universities and polytechnics to ensure students and entrepreneurs have the most up-to-date skills in digital marketing, programming languages and engineering.

To achieve this ambitious agenda, Smart Nation must be both comprehensive and aggressive. Singapore should be a fast-mover in 5G mobile broadband, cashless payments, mobile banking, the latest ride-sharing apps and other digital tools.

OPENNESS TO TALENT

Talent is the lifeblood of a smart society. Singapore's students are world-beaters in maths, science, reading and problem-solving, but are insufficient in number to staff all the roles Singapore plays as a global economic hub.

Singapore has always remained open to the most qualified professionals and should continue to attract those who contribute to its commercial strength, and invest in hiring, training and elevating Singaporeans.

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

It has been an article of faith that Singapore has maintained a particular racial balance that is three-quarters Chinese. But should this be an iron-clad principle adhered to rigidly or can there be alterations in the demographic mix? After all, of Asia's nearly five billion residents, 3.5 billion are not Chinese, with India alone set to overtake China in population size in the coming decade and most Asian countries having younger median age populations as well.

In recent years, a move to slow down immigrant growth and the foreign worker population has damaged Singaporean businesses that depend on foreign labour, such as hospitality, food and beverage, healthcare and others. Hotels need more cleaners, restaurants need more waiters, and hospitals need more doctors and nurses. The service sector clearly cannot be automated by robots as quickly as portrayed in sci-fi movies.

Singapore's growth trajectory and diversified economy require continuous demographic planning.

Fresh young families will be populating the numerous new towns and districts and riding the expanded transportation system. This next generation of Singaporeans should reflect Asia's changing economic and social complexion, with more South Asian and Asean nationals and younger Eurasians nurturing Singapore's bonds with the fastest-growing markets.

It has been an article of faith that Singapore has maintained a particular racial balance that is three-quarters Chinese. But should this be an iron-clad principle adhered to rigidly or can there be alterations in the demographic mix? After all, of Asia's nearly five billion residents, 3.5 billion are not Chinese, with India alone set to overtake China in population size in the coming decade and most Asian countries having younger median age populations as well.

Of course Singapore will continue to be majority-Chinese long into the future, but despite these roots, Singapore's future branches may be allowed to grow in the other directions shaping Asia's future.

The White Paper of 2011 unleashed a firestorm of debate about the long-term population of Singapore. But rather than fixate on a distant number certain to change based on the many complex variables that influence population size, we should look at the near-and medium-term requirements to sustain and advance Singapore's core and emerging sectors.

There is a symbiotic relation between foreign and domestic talent in key areas where Singapore faces labour shortages such as digital technology, hospitality and tourism, media and entertainment, construction and infrastructure services, and other specialisations.

To that end, a flexible entrepreneur visa programme that gives foreigners four to five years to establish themselves in Singapore might be initiated, and be made renewable contingent on business success and contributions to job creation, the tax base and other metrics. It could also be a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship. This is both the meritocratic as well as commercially strategic way to ensure Singapore has the range of manpower it needs in the decades ahead and is at the cutting edge of sectors that define the future.

A SHARED PATRIOTISM

With growing trade and investment with high-growth Asian markets ranging from India to Vietnam, we should also expect that more students and professionals will circulate into Singapore from these and numerous other countries.

They should not be viewed as an opportunistic burden. Rather, a proper holistic accounting would appreciate how expanding Singapore's commercial footprint abroad sustains the good life at home: By training and hiring regional talent, we build profitable connections into the finance, infrastructure and other sectors abroad, bringing home the returns. Immigration thus needs to be significantly de-politicised moving forward.

Singapore is already the most diverse small country in the world among countries with less than 10 million in population, and remaining open to talent from Asia and beyond will require the country to be even more vigorous about social integration.

Passive presence is not enough: The shared patriotism that keeps Singapore's incredibly variegated society harmonious requires proper socialisation. For example, I would argue that linguistic socialisation is important. Though there are many older Singaporeans who do not speak English, there is no escaping its universal importance for the future. English-language competency should be vigorously promoted even upon the swell of immigrants of the past two decades.

This can go hand in hand with other measures to enhance solidarity and liveability. For example, we should revisit the discussion of broadening national service beyond military service, and consider including women and permanent residents into national service to expand the pool of childcare minders, tutors, eldercare volunteers and other service providers Singapore needs.

Today the great divide between societies appears to be open versus closed, united versus divided. A smart society is one that uses technology to maintain openness and cohesion rather than being further divided by it.

• Dr Parag Khanna is managing partner of FutureMap, a data-and scenario-based strategic advisory firm, and author of Connectography.