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…
But in population, it is #118…
And in GDP per capita, Singapore ranks #5!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Caning 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.
This 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 J.S. Leis is a global strategic foresight researcher specializing in the interrelation of emerging technologies, society, politics, and future studies.
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