Singapore steals the show at the Arctic Circle

Mr. Sam Tan Chin Siong speaking at the Arctic Circle, October 12, 2013. (c) Mia Bennett
Mr. Sam Tan Chin Siong speaking at the Arctic Circle, October 12, 2013. (c) Mia Bennett

For all the talk of China and the Arctic, there’s one dark horse that definitely made itself known at the Arctic Circle: Singapore. With a speech that hit all the right notes, Sam Tan Chin Siong, Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Member of Parliament, described the contributions Singapore can make to the Arctic. Calling his country a “low-lying island relying on sea trade,” the Secretary expressed in one fell swoop why climate change and Arctic shipping developments matter to Singapore. “Geographical distance is not a factor when it comes to the effects of climate change,” he said. Already, Singapore is making strides to become energy efficient, and he claimed that it’s Asia’s “greenest metropolis.” A quick check of Siemens’ Green City Index confirmed this to be true.

Singapore, a city of trees and skyscrapers. (c) Mia Bennett, 2013.
Singapore, a city of trees and skyscrapers. (c) Mia Bennett, 2013.

Since climate change requires a global solution, Singapore is interested in building capacity and sharing its experiences. Its engagement in the circumpolar north began in 2009 after a study of the implications of Arctic developments on Singapore. The Southeast Asian nation “aims to contribute positively and meaningfully” to Arctic discussions. One of the key references flowing throughout the Secretary’s speech had to do with Arctic migratory birds that stop by Singapore’s Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, which sits along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Singapore, Tan said, is the “Arctic’s monitor in the equator area,” a snappy catchphrase that makes Singapore sound like a completely benign and well-intended actor in Arctic affairs. Nothing to see here, folks, we’re just here to check on the birds.

East Asian-Australasian Flyway in blue, connecting the Arctic, Antarctic – and Singapore.
East Asian-Australasian Flyway in blue, connecting the Arctic, Antarctic – and Singapore.

At one point, Tan laughingly observed that Singapore is like a “little David,” perhaps trying to draw a contrast with the big giant in the room: China. There are only four areas in which Singapore can make a difference:

  1. Environmental protection
  2. The development of a safe Arctic region
  3. Sustainable economic development
  4. The development of human capital

Yet these four areas cover a huge amount of ground, so there are actually many ways in which Singapore can contribute. But in the Arctic, it seems that it’s better for non-Arctic countries to have a smaller rather than larger visible footprint – hence the need for Singapore to downplay its activities. Klaus Dodds, Geography Professor at Royal Holloway, calls this Arctic reticence towards outside, particularly Asian, involvement in what’s perceived as their region “Polar Orientalism.”

Consequently, giving, and not taking, was the name of Tan’s game. Singapore is “not interested in natural resources,” he declared. This point decisively distinguishes the country from other energy-hungry Asian actors interested in the Arctic, namely China, Japan, and South Korea. While Singapore is interested in the region’s development, Tan painted the country as coming from a different standpoint: contributing its resources and “technological know-how” instead of extracting and exploiting its resources. Of course, let’s not forget that by exporting industrial products and technologies like icebreakers and offshore rigs, Singapore is still very much entangled in the extractive industries proceeding apace in the Arctic. Just because it does not import the end product does not remove it from the commodity chain. Far from it, in fact. Singapore’s Keppel Corporation builds more offshore oil rigs than any other company in the world (source: Reuters). Singapore’s academic sector and think tanks are also strongly tied into energy research and development. The NUS Center for Offshore Research and Engineering and Singapore Maritime Institute were two key examples Mr Tan cited. Perhaps the military-industrial complex could be broadened to mean the academic-military-industrial complex in the case of Singapore (also the world’s 20th biggest arms exporter, according to SIPRI).

After talking about Singapore’s potential contributions to Arctic R&D, Tan brought up a topic that merited higher visibility at both the Arctic Energy Summit and Arctic Circle: human capital.  He called developing this the most difficult task, saying that “you can build infrastructure, but how do you motivate people to adapt?” Tan mentioned Singapore’s Third Country Training Programme, in which the island nation pairs with another country, like Norway or Germany, to provide courses and training to people from other countries, often from the developing world. This could be an area where programs for the Arctic are developed. Tan’s call for more “country social responsibility,” a modification of a conference catchphrase, “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), elicited a lot of nodding from audience members, particularly those from the Arctic who view outside influence with a wary eye, seeing non-Arctic states – particularly from Asia – as self-interested.

Tan also drew parallels between the miracle of Singapore and the potential for small Arctic countries. “Singapore was once a developing country without resources. Few people believed we could make it,” Tan expressed. Yet luckily for Singapore, the country’s “founding fathers had the foresight to focus on developing human capital.”

A major difference between Singapore and the Arctic countries, however, is that whereas the former was resource-poor, the latter are not. Singapore had no choice but to develop its human capital. The Arctic countries, on the other hand, have a wealth of natural resources and low population densities, complicating the development of human capital and possibly bringing about the dreaded resource curse. With a death of skilled employees, the extractive industries often fly in engineers and technicians from around the globe, who then fly back to the south on breaks, where they spend a good amount of their paychecks. The fly-in, fly-out mentality is detrimental to Arctic economies and communities, and this is something Singapore seeks to change, according to Mr. Tan.

Before I heard Tan’s speech, one high-level member of the Singaporean delegation mentioned to me that Singapore cares about indigenous peoples in the region, whereas others don’t. Indeed, in June 2012, Singapore conducted a study visit for Arctic indigenous communities, and a second study is planned as well. Singapore isn’t just going up to the Arctic: they also want to “bring the Arctic closer to the equator,” Mr. Tan said, noting the recent birth of a polar bear in Singapore. He added, “We hope the younger generation takes an interest in the Arctic region and can participate in projects up here.” While the transfer of skills from highly-trained Singaporean workers to the Arctic can be beneficial, it will be important to not perpetuate the fly-in, fly-out mentality and actually have people who make long-lasting contributions to Arctic communities, even if that means they need to stay there for a long time.

My conversations with northern residents during the two Arctic conferences touched upon this problem several times. One Alaskan recounted an American from Texas who had moved up to the Alaskan bush to become a teacher without any real preconception of what to expect, only to have to leave the state due to not being able to mentally withstand the conditions. Danish people often move to Greenland to work but then leave a year or two later, creating a sort of split society for locals and foreigners. Although the development of human capital is crucial, what is really needed to strengthen Arctic communities are also people who are willing to commit to the development of communities, too. I came across this 2007 article from the Los Angeles Times recently about Albanian and Korean taxi cab drivers in Bethel, Alaska, who have been working the population 6,371 city’s ten-miles of roads for decades. The cabdrivers “weave themselves into the lives of residents to a degree unique in Alaska, or perhaps anywhere. The longtime drivers know everyone in town by face, first name or address. They know most everyone’s stories.” This, I think, is one of the real tasks of sustainable development in the Arctic – sustainable in the sense that foreigners and outsiders strengthen and enlarge the community rather than rupturing it or leaving it behind, taking their paychecks with them.

Tan closed his speech by stating, “We don’t have a political agenda. It’s mainly survival.” A one-meter rise in sea level would submerge a good deal of Singapore, and “one day, the prime minister will have to convene a meeting in a scuba diving suit” (a humorous image, but one that opens up a can of sovereignty worms that I won’t go into here). Tan’s joke made me think of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the work of the Seychelles’ Roving Ambassador for Climate Change and SIDS issues. Perhaps there’s room for Singapore to collaborate with these groups and communities from the Arctic all together. At the end of the day, viewing the world’s regions as linked rather than isolated is going to prove most useful for tackling issues like climate change.

Void of any posturing or incredibly beguiling rhetoric as earlier (perhaps China should hire Singapore’s speechwriter), Tan closed his speech by saying, “Arctic melting is not a question of if, but when. We need to take a long-term view.” The long-term view is something that is hard to process for humans when the consequences of changes like sea level rise are still decades off for most people in the developed world, even in Singapore and the Netherlands (although preventative counter-measures are already being taken by the latter’s foresighted government). But energy extraction needs to talk more about the long-term view both forwards and backwards. After all, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s Shell was drilling offshore wells near Alaska only to pull out due to the sinking price of oil. Looking ahead, profits from oil and gas may spell fortune in the near future, but what does that mean for us 20 or 30 years from now? It’s hard to not develop the resources when they are so valuable, but some of the excitement over the windfalls for both Big Oil and indigenous communities alike needs to be tempered with a good hard look at the long-term view of the Arctic. In the future, human capital and renewable energy may matter more once the “bust” of commodities cycles replaces the “boom.”

Arctic tern: Next stop, Singapore? (c) Mia Bennett, 2013.
Arctic tern: Next stop, Singapore? (c) Mia Bennett, 2013.

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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