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IEET > Security > Rights > Life > Innovation > Vision > Futurism > Contributors > Miriam Jisun

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Singapore and the Singularity


Miriam Jisun
By Miriam Jisun
Ethical Technology

Posted: Aug 2, 2011

For many reasons, the tiny country of Singapore should be considered as a leading candidate to be the eventual epicenter of the Technological Singularity.


Facts and Figures

Despite being a very small country—in fact, a city-state—with only 4.7 million inhabitants and the third highest population density in the world, Singapore shows remarkable figures in economic parameters as well as in research and development.

In geographic size (square km), Singapore is #192 in the world…

1

But in population, it is #118…

2

And in GDP per capita, Singapore ranks #5!

3

Singapore definitely belongs to the emerging Asian economies which include China, Hong Kong SAR, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand—although judged by its current performance and standard of living, Singapore may not be “emerging” anymore: it has already arrived, but may have been overlooked due to its small size.

In regard to unemployment rates, for example, at 3.4% Singapore has one of the world’s lowest figures.

4

Singapore ranks #27 in the world on the UN Human Development Index, fitting within the definition of very high human development.

5

Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country where Chinese, Malay, Indian and European influences converge within a small space. It recognizes four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, and is influenced by several major religions and philosophies: Buddhism (most widely practiced), Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, as well as no religious affiliation, atheism, or agnosticism (18%).

Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation

As Singapore is a country poor in natural resources, its human resources and especially knowledge competencies in science, research, and development are essential for its economy. Thus, much emphasis is put on education from an early age. This is reflected in the high Singaporean OECD-PISA scores (ranking #5 among all participating countries) that internationally compare education standards and performance.

6

In 2009, the Boston Consulting group scored Singapore as the world’s most innovation-friendly country. In regard to biotech innovations, Singapore is ranked in the top five according to a study by Scientific American. One contributing factor, besides considerable governmental support (the government plans to invest $3 billion in Biomedical Sciences research for the period 2011–2015), is the very liberal biotech-related legislation, e.g. in regard to human embryonic stem cell research. Singapore shows very high capacities in the whole area of stem cell research and regenerative medicine.

Singapore ranks at the top spot in chemistry within the Asia-Pacific area, and places #12 in the world. Through its excellent position in biotechnology and chemistry, it is also heavily investing in nanotechnology, and has established an Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

According to 2010 statistics, Singapore’s Internet penetration rate was at 77.8%, which puts the country at #20 in the world, on a par with Belgium and above the USA. There is free Internet access available for all Singaporean residents and visitors, offered at widespread hotspots, and the country otherwise takes great efforts to make Internet accessibility widely affordable. This, of course, contributes to the further acceleration of the knowledge society.

7

To sum it up, Singapore is a small but high-tech nation focusing and depending on knowledge, science, research, development, innovation, and business. It shows high ranks in parameters related to education, business, research, innovation, and emerging technologies. It is a multicultural nation and a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European influences, which is, however, also quite selective on whom to let into the country. Singapore strives to be the best and to attract only the best.

Ambivalences

However, this paradise also has its shadow sides. Although Singapore is formally a democracy, it has been a de facto autocracy—or so-called “hybrid regime”—with a one-party rule for a long time and scores only at place #85 on the 2010 Democracy Index (between Bolivia and Bangladesh). Things may have begun to change recently as the opposition has gained strength. On the Freedom House Index, Singapore is positioned in the middle of the field, defined as only a “partially free” country, with especially low scores in regard to the electoral process and associational and organizational rights.

8Caning is used as legal punishment in Singapore. It is mostly administered for major offenses like hostage-taking and rape, but also sometimes for drug use, rioting, and vandalism, which even includes graffiti-spraying. The strict rules on societal order are also reflected in Singapore’s ban on chewing gum, to keep the city clean.

However, the transgender and LGBT communities are quite accepted and relatively well integrated in Singaporean society, as these cultures have quite a history in Singapore and Malaysia. Especially transgenderism generally seems to be more rooted in South Asian traditions, as Pakistan, for example, officially introduced the recognition of a “third gender” in 2011.

Singapore also was accused in the 1980s of practicing a kind of eugenics, when Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew made the remark that the “well educated should have more children than the less educated to maintain economic standards.” Singapore quickly tried to distance itself from such statements, but the idea continues to live on in special dating services for academics.

Although social welfare systems have improved over the last few years, it is still bad to be less educated, poor, or unemployed in Singapore. The country has the highest concentration of millionaires in the world, but also the second biggest income gap among highly developed nations. Official data about a poverty line in Singapore does not seem to exist in a reliable way. Income inequalities appear to relate to ethnic dimensions, as the Chinese are considered to be more well off than the Malays. Social welfare schemes in Singapore are sparse—especially if looking at its economic performance—and rather meant to keep people alive (with public housing programs and subsidized food) and to encourage them to seek work.

According to the 2010 Quality of Life Index compiled by International Living magazine, Singapore was placed in a position of #70 out of 194 countries, whereas according to Bloomberg and Business Week, Singapore was declared as Asia’s city with the best quality of life, and is in place #22 out of 221 world cities. Such very different views reflect the variety of criteria being used, and the dependence on the contexts they are related to.

Singapore is one of the fastest aging countries in the world with very low birth rates, and faces a substantial aging problem. By 2020, more than one in three residents will be above 50 years of age, and by 2030, one in five Singaporeans are expected to be above 65. This aging of society is feared as it may negatively impact economic growth. So, will Singapore take advantage of its high competences in biotechnology and other emerging technologies to make healthy life extension a reality? In 2008 Singapore hosted the first Asian conference “on the science of aging and regenerative medicine.”

Reflection: Singapore and the Singularity

Singapore is an innovative and high tech country that puts special emphasis on fostering the knowledge society, innovation, and especially biosciences. Singapore is also a wealthy and business-oriented country, aiming to attract foreign investment and trade, and is considered to be one of the best places for foreign investors and business. Poor in natural resources, Singapore depends on knowledge and innovation to compete and survive.

Although the country is careful about publicly acknowledging this, Singapore has some elitist elements to its society which are reflected in its education practices, its interest in improving the capacities of the next generation, as well as in its rather sparse welfare system.

In general, it can be said that Singapore is a country for winners of the knowledge and innovation society, who are able to accept defined socio-political rules, regulations, and a limited democracy. In the future it is possible that democracy will open up in Singapore, but it’s easier to envision a kind of technocracy, with scientists and other professionals being entrusted with decision-making and governance. Those who are best at managing knowledge and education will be considered the best to rule the country.

9This emphasis on knowledge, paired with high capacities in emerging sciences and technologies, could lead to Singapore’s increasing interest in and application of human enhancement technologies, especially related to intelligence enhancement, computer-based augmentation, and biotechnological enhancements. Health improvement and healthy life extension also could be on its future priority list, especially in face of the threat its aging society is expected to impose on the country.

Because longevity is seen as very desirable in societies deeply influenced by Chinese culture, as is the case with Singapore, large shares of the population are likely to support research and development of technologies aimed at prolonging healthy life. Due to Singapore’s high capacities in biotechnology and related areas, the country could become a leading innovator in regenerative medicine and anti-aging science and technologies from which the elite of the country, at least, will benefit.

Becoming immortal, spiritually as well as physically (living as long as possible), is one of the main goals in Taoism. Thus, modern life-extension science and technology may be regarded as a scientifically founded and more successful continuation of millennia-old Taoist and alchemist traditions. Unlike the case in many Western countries, physical immortality, i.e. living forever, is not regarded as taboo or as sin in countries with Taoist traditions.

In 2011 the gap between rich and poor in Singapore is very high—among the highest in developed countries. So where will Singapore go? Maybe they will increasingly opt for robots instead of human labor to do the low-paying, non-knowledge-related work in the future? Sending more and more of its low-skilled labor force out of the country and substituting them with robots seems to fit the picture.

Currently Singapore is less focused on robot technology than on other R&D, especially in biotechnology and medicine, but they may increasingly start importing robots from South Korea, China, or Japan, and then begin developing their own or improving the capabilities of imported robots. In 2003, Singapore launched the world’s first fully automated and driverless underground commuter train system. There seem to be many factors that could lead to further interest and improvements in AI-based systems and robotics in Singapore, such as assistance for scientific research and education, human augmentation for the knowledge society, as well as further automation and performance of manual labor.

At some point, the limitations of human intelligence to generate further knowledge and innovation will be approached. However, Singapore may not straightforwardly start creating a superintelligence to govern their life, but might begin by developing technologies to enhance human intelligence and capacities. Singapore may not be the first country to have a supercomputer that exceeds human intelligence—and human intelligence and knowledge may also be just too much valued—but it may be a country with early life extension applications, humans augmented by computer technology and cyborgs, advanced tissue and organ engineering, and possibly even genetic enhancements for improving health and intelligence.

In a country governed by a technocratic science and knowledge elite, if that’s what happens, concerns and restrictions may be far less present than elsewhere. And as people of Chinese origin are the predominant ethnic group in Singapore (around 75% of the population), different ethical principles generally apply there as compared to most Western countries. These include positive attitudes toward wealth, longevity, education, science, and progress. However, as a high-tech nation, Singapore does not let the East Asian dimensions of tradition and consistency conflict with progress.

A hybrid of human and machine intelligence may develop in Singapore—as well as in other East Asian countries—in a kind of yin-yang unity that achieves transhuman transcendence through the fusion of complements, i.e. what humans are good at combined with what machines are good at. It would not be surprising to see cyborgs in the future Singaporean society, along with genetically and bio-technologically enhanced (post)humans with improved intelligence, health, and longevity.


Dr. Miriam Jisun is a global strategic foresight researcher specializing in the interrelation of emerging technologies, society, politics, and future studies.
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COMMENTS


They can be caned for graffiti-spraying and chewing gum? Not my Singularity.

An authoritarian society with that much totalitarian control over its population cannot be stable and will crumble as soon as the sheeple wake up. Thank God they always do sooner or later.





Thanks for this well-thought-out article. I have just one question.

“Unlike the case in many Western countries, physical immortality, i.e. living forever, is not regarded as taboo or as sin in countries with Taoist traditions.”

Are you referring to the same Western countries, largely Christian, where the resurrection of the dead is widely believed, where people will live forever? In other words, I can’t figure out which countries you had in mind where living forever is regarded as taboo or as sin.





it’s funny to imagine a world where we wouldn’t have discovered things like alcohol or such





Veronica, you are not suggesting Christian eternal life is entirely comparable to scientific immortalism, are you?





Giulio Prisco: “An authoritarian society with that much totalitarian control over its population cannot be stable and will crumble as soon as the sheeple wake up. Thank God they always do sooner or later.”

Not true at all. The vast majority of people everywhere would be perfectly happy with not being allowed to spray graffiti or chew gum, if they get to live in financially well-off circumstances. It’s only us pampered westerners who manage to fool ourselves into thinking that we’d care more about maximally progressive democracy than e.g. good living conditions.





post-post asks: “Veronica, you are not suggesting Christian eternal life is entirely comparable to scientific immortalism, are you? “
I was suggesting that it was _somewhat_ comparable.
I’m just wondering who in the Christian world says that scientific immortalism is taboo or a sin. I’ve never heard of such an idea. (I can point to Christians who are against some types of enhancements, but that’s not against scientific immortalism per se.)





Actually, post-post, while Ms. Leis referred to life-extending science and technology in her prior sentence, in the one I quoted she only said “physical immortality, i.e. living forever,” and did not differentiate what “brand” she was referring to. I felt I had the freedom to interpret it loosely.





@Alexei - Perhaps, as you say, the vast majority of people everywhere are happy as well fed sheeple. Disturbing trends in our western societies, where sooner or later there will be regulations on which hand we must use to wipe our own ass, seem to confirm your point.

But history shows that people do fight for their freedom and against too much BS when they have enough. I support massive civil disobedience against bans on things like chewing gum and spraying graffiti.

Not that I care about chewing gum or graffiti. I don’t chew gum or spray graffiti, and I actually _dislike_ seeing chewed gum on the street or ugly graffiti on the walls. But I am happy to accept a moderate level of annoyance for the privilege of living in a free society, and I try to be tolerant of others’ little annoying habits because I hope they will be equally tolerant of mine.

And since we have mentioned the Singularity, I doubt such a thing will ever happen. But if it does it will not be brought forward by sheeple, but by free, creative and subversive persons that do not tolerate stupid restrictions.





Perhaps Dr Leis, in alluding to how life-extension and enhancement technologies in Taoist societies are not considered taboo as in Western countries, is contrasting Western attitudes of “against Nature” and “not what God intended” with a different (Eastern?) perspective of what Nature and God are. Perhaps she is referring to how a people with a culturally different philosophy of nature would embrace and influence policies on transhuman technologies and science.

Dr Leis acknowledges that Singaporean society is strongly Chinese influenced but then goes on to generalise that it is Chinese-Taoist dominated and thus more accepting of new life extension technologies. She does not mention that the majority of Singapore’s elites belong to fundamentalist Christian evangelical mega churches, which may not hold such accepting Taoist viewpoints. There are also significant Muslim and Hindu populations whose values need to be considered. They also would have non-Taoist viewpoints which may be at odds with the general population.

The diversity of Singapore cannot be underestimated and Dr Leis painting of the country with a broad Taoist brush is naive.





What Dr. Leis may be referring to in her comments about Western religious attitudes about physical immortality has to do with the comments of people like Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University, who, as a devout Catholic opposes such things on the grounds that he believes we should be preparing for the next world rather than seeking to accommodate ourselves to this world.

Many US Evangelicals also echo these sentiments, rejecting technologies that leads to a deathless existence as being an “abomination of God’s will for mankind.”

It is probably these attitudes of which she speaks.

But, there are also Western Philosophical attitudes that have nothing to do with religion that oppose “immortality.”

Notable are those who follow Continental Post-War philosophers such as Hannah Arendt. These people tend to often espouse the tired sentiment “death is what gives meaning to life.”

Personally, I think it is the ability to thrive while living that gives meaning to life.





@David L, Indeed, Singapore’s diversity cannot be a underestimated, and should probably not be broad brush as a Taoist-majority.  In fact, based on the official figures from Department of Statistics (Singapore), out of the official 3.1mil of citizens, about 1mil are buddhist.  see link http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/c2010sr1/t58-64.pdf

Overall, I thought Dr Leis’s article painted a well balance perspective of the city state. It could perhaps also touch on the recent raise of the concept of Integrated Resorts (theme parks, entertainment, casino, performance arts) as one of the developments as well as a challenge to family unity and society debt woes.  .





“Actually, post-post, while Ms. Leis referred to life-extending science and technology in her prior sentence, in the one I quoted she only said ‘physical immortality, i.e. living forever,’ and did not differentiate what ‘brand’ she was referring to. I felt I had the freedom to interpret it loosely.”

Okay. At any rate, please allow a digression. The flaw in Christianity is subject-object dualism (in this world but not of this world): we the subjects are allegedly separate from the ‘object’ called ‘the world’. IMO this sabotages physical immortality by creating a chasm between ourselves and Creation. Not that I dislike Christ, but Christianity is double- minded, unlike Eastern religion/spirituality.
However, having written that, Christianity makes sense in a commercial, hyper-materialist, Calvinistic sense. Those men that get things done are partially pushed by the protestant work-ethic to DO yet there’s precious little spirituality involved. I have always thought civilization would be needed for indefinite lifespans, now it all appears more complicated than that; it is sad, but perhaps the future doesn’t need us after all, maybe we are nothing except darwinist hominids-cum-transhumans, with spirituality as veneer/backdrop.
I tend to agree with Giulio, save for the apparent fact of people—at least men—wanting power more than freedom. Depends not only who and where one is, also how old one is. There were different expectations decades ago; so a college-age person might be more optimistic than an older person who expected a different outcome (some of us expected Age of Aquarius and got Clockwork Orange instead).

Hope the explanation above did not ramble to the point it was unclear, Veronica; it was a response to Giulio’s comment as well.





I think the expression “in this world but not of this world” can be interpreted in several different ways, only one of which “sabotages physical immortality by creating a chasm between ourselves and Creation”.

This is the second time I’ve seen you write that people want power more than freedom, but I’ve been unable to back that up by studies, not even an informal survey.

Speaking about digressions…





Of course it cannot be backed up, how would a survey question read: “Mr. Jones, do you want power more than liberty?”
There are some thoughts men are not going to reveal.
What concerns me is the Ivory Tower. Someone at IEET—wont say who—couldn’t comprehend what it is like at the bottom, that the problems of the poor are very complex, complicated, and intractable.
And when you examine all classes you see that the urge for power is close to universal, in men at least. Veronica, I would ask when was the last time you went out to carefully study what is going on at all levels of what we call society—however you would be disinclined to answer.





Re: people wanting power more than freedom.

See Richard McGregor’s book and articles on China, where the vast majority of people care not a whit for the “personal freedoms” that many clamor for in the USA or Western Europe.

Instead, what they want is personal wealth and the opportunities this brings for their children.

I happen to agree with them to a degree. And as long as China is able to cater to the needs of it’s population (they have had a lot of problems with this recently due to people illegally moving from the rural to urban areas looking for work - this is not an insurmountable problem though) it is likely that things like freedom of speech and religion will not matter at all to them.





“it is likely that things like freedom of speech and religion will not matter at all to them.”

Yes, my writing ‘and when you examine all classes you see that the urge for power is close to universal’, was in reference to a familiar country, America.
When I read Veronica’s sentence:
“this is the second time I’ve seen you write that people want power more than freedom, but I’ve been unable to back that up by studies, not even an informal survey”,
it concerns me that it is another example of the Ivory Tower; as ‘studies’ and ‘informal survey’ appear to mean Web or book studies & surveys, not fieldwork. Not surveying situations close up is like flying an airplane on instruments, never looking out the plane’s windows.





post-post writes: “Veronica, I would ask when was the last time you went out to carefully study what is going on at all levels of what we call society—however you would be disinclined to answer. “

First, I’d ask the exact question from you. Wait. I basically did. And you replied with “I made up the factoid that people want power more than freedom.” Well, you didn’t say those exact words, but you might as well have, with your words: “of course it cannot be backed up”. Yet you did /try/ to back yourself up. How? With the following: “And when you examine all classes you see that the urge for power is close to universal, in men at least.” Well great! And when you examine all classes you see that the urge for /freedom/ is close to universal, too—and in /both/ sexes!





hi all

one of the most significant aspects of Singaporean culture, in my short experience is that of fusion. Illustrated in its gastronomic manifestations. Also for the most part in religious tolerance and diversity. Given the geographical and cultural mash up, I wonder if there is a food a faith a future which seem less likely to blend with this blended identity.

love to all.
Paul





“And when you examine all classes you see that the urge for /freedom/ is close to universal, too—and in /both/ sexes!”

I got us off-topic, Veronica, so will end it with one more observation and get back to Singapore: power trumps freedom. Homeless sleeping outdoors are free—but it doesn’t do them much good. “Great” about wanting freedom, just too bad men want power and want to destroy each other more than anything.
Now what were we saying about Singapore?

 





Something that’s being ignored in this thread is the fact that there are people in Singapore who are resisting the political set-up there. In spite of its economic prosperity some at least, have tried to change things. Of course, since as concerns size Singapore is negligible on the world stage these dissidents got no support from the West and have been hammered into bankruptcy and any areas that have voted for oppositionist candidates have apparently had a sudden loss of social and community facilities. I wouldn’t like to have it gain more political influence worldwide than it has.





Wow great article! I hope you pay your excellent researchers for such amazingly well-composed contributions well!





The article is amazing and covers an important topic.  It seems like the criticism or praise (or envy) of Singapore is only coherent if Singapore can be separated from the rest of the world (socioeconomically).  But all ivory towers have roots in the dirt.  We can’t separate Haiti from the Hamptons or California from the Congo.  They are all part of the same economic system, and one doesn’t exist without the other. So if there’s a problem with the privilege of Singapore then the problem is really with globalized financial capitalism, because if it didn’t happen in Singapore, it would happen somewhere else.  Singapore’s techno-success/democratic-shortfall isn’t the fault of the Singaporeese.  We are all playing the same game.  It’s all one system.  Isn’t it?





Good point Andrew. Silicon Valley is entering a boom phase again, as is Singapore.

Meanwhile some US states are trying to repatriate traditional manufacturing industries. Wrong investment focus I think. The planet will evolve by dis-investing in manufacturing and investing in information technology (as in “printing” objects instead of “manufacturing” them).

It’s no longer the USA vs. China. It’s Silicon Valley Vs. Shenzhen from now on.





“Wrong investment focus I think”

Right. And don’t forget how sentimental the old fashioned are for outdated manufactures.





...that is, it is not only utility, but also nostalgia.





@post-post: Precisely. Miriam notes:  “In the future it is possible that democracy will open up in Singapore, but it’s easier to envision a kind of technocracy, with scientists and other professionals being entrusted with decision-making and governance. Those who are best at managing knowledge and education will be considered the best to rule the country.”

If we have to compromise current Western democratic principles in order to create a harmonious planetary system, we might as well compromise in favor of a science layer.





It’s all one system. Isn’t it?

It’s largely one economic system. Andrew but there are different political manifestations. After thousands of years of dictatorship, we in the West have gained at least a modicum of freedom (and like others I worry that there are some working to destroy it). The system in far-eastern cultures is more like the traditional tyrannies we had to endure in the past. And for those of you who think there is no essential difference in the political systems ‘behind the scenes’ I would simply remind you of Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and what’s happening in the Middle East right now (and which the Chinese government has done its best unsuccessfully in my opinion I’m happy to argue, as will be seen in a few months). And let’s not forget A Hitler who tried to bring dictatorship to the whole world.

At least in the West for the most part our rich elite gives us ‘an inch that we might breathe’. It may not be a lot but it makes a big difference in the long run.

As an English teacher I have lived in countries that are relatively free, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland (not including Northern Ireland where there are a bunch of people whose mindset is that of 15th-16th century English people and whose political ideas for all their talk of liberty, comes from the mentality of that time) Britain (20th century) and others and in countries that have little freedom; the ghastly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and a vacation in China which has made me reluctant to go back there.

I remember Al Gore, in one of his speeches saying something to the effect that some people were claiming there was no essential difference between him and Bush. Gore said that if you believed that just wait and see what happened if Bush was elected. Yes, Al.

Those people who claim that the system we have in the West (and I admit it’s far from perfect) is in essence no different from the ones in other parts of the world had better hope they never witness the collapse of the West. If they do, they will find that such policies as one child (China) midnight visits from the secret police (Russia and many other places), forced collectivisation, (Russia, China and others), rampant corruption to the point of impoverishment of much of the population (Haiti, Nigeria and much of Africa) and worse will tend to have a severe impact on their quality of life.

I hope to God Ben Goetzal knows what he’s doing researching artificial inteligence in China. As Orwell said, imagine a boot stamping on a human face for ever and ever. Singapore for all its apparent sophistication, is in the camp of those who believe giving freedom to the masses is a waste of time and if the singularity happens there first we may be in serious trouble. (If you’re one of the Western political elite reading this, I hope you realise in such a scenario your alpha-male postion may be in great danger)
Imagine if Hitler had got the A-bomb first. I believe that in time the Japanese and Italians would have found themselves in the same death camps as the Jews, Gays, Slavs, and Roma.

 

 





Here is a piece on Singapore in today’s American Spectator:
http://spectator.org/archives/2011/08/31/singapore-rising

Since the rag liked Hank’s Israel article so much, I posted Miriam’s in the comments section, sans charts.





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