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Globalisation in a Post COVID-19 Singapore

Globalisation is crucial to a small city-state like Singapore. Talent migration, free trade and open borders have been key factors to our country’s growth over the decades. But as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, we are suddenly confronted with a new reality of closed borders and disrupted supply chains. Now, there is a need to re-examine our notion of globalisation in order to see how Singapore can adapt better in a post-coronavirus world. 

Do we over-rely on globalisation?

The foundations of globalisation are built on the idea of comparative advantage, which is when nations engage in economic activities where they hold an advantage over others. This is a principle stringently abided by Singapore for the past 50 years, that allows the nation to compete globally.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the picture-perfect notion of globalisation as we know it. Perhaps the potential problems were there to be seen in the initial spread of the pandemic, as numerous Singaporeans working or studying abroad returned home, inadvertently bringing the virus along with them. At one stage, the number of ‘imported’ cases overshadowed ‘local’ cases. Could this have been interpreted as a sign of things to come?

Accounting for over 300,000 deaths[1], the spread of the disease has made governments, businesses and communities rethink their boundaries and borders. This results in the enforcement of restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services across borders. Maritime and aviation industries have consequently taken a big hit, and employment opportunities look grim in general. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that airlines stand to lose as much as US$113 billion (S$163 billion) in revenue in 2020 alone as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic[2]. The International Labour Organization predicts things to get worse, warning that 25 million jobs are at risk[3].

The Singapore story

Singapore is known for having a world-class aviation hub and one of the busiest ports in the world. To say that these prohibitive measures have affected the nation and its industries tremendously would be an understatement. Scoot, for example, announced that flights to over 50 countries were being suspended due to the enforced travel restrictions[2], while Singapore Airlines cut out 96% of its usual routes[3]. The decision by the Malaysian Government to abruptly close its borders also caused widespread uncertainty in Singapore, which relies on 400,000[3] Malaysian workers who cross over daily to support the economy. 

Additionally, Singapore is a nation heavily dependent on trade. With over 23 free trade agreements across continents and food imports coming from over 170 countries and regions, approximately 90% of the country’s food supply is imported. The travel bans and border reinforcements have effectively placed Singapore in a very delicate situation. This uncertainty has perhaps trickled down to the citizens, manifesting in countless knee-jerk incidents of people haphazardly clearing the supermarkets of essential items. Do the pictures speak a thousand words?

The Singaporean government has reassured the country that there is adequate food stock. Additionally, in an attempt to alleviate problems in the economy, they have granted many relief packages, with a total amounting up to S$59.9 billion, or 12% of the gross domestic product (GDP)[4]. But can this realistically go on? The fact is, this is the first time that Singapore has drawn upon its reserves more than once in a single year. All signs point towards this trade-reliant nation to be entering its worst-ever recession, in spite of the efforts.

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that open and connected supply chains can no longer be taken for granted. The solution perhaps lies in looking inwards.

Is self-sustenance the way to go?

The Singaporean government seems to identify self-sustenance as a solution. There has been a shift in emphasis to domestic-self reliance over global, economic efficiency. And that a big first step starts with food. After all, food is essential and should be considered side by side with other necessities of life, such as national defence. There are plans in the work, namely the ambitious ‘30 by 30’ plan to locally produce enough food to meet 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030.

Taking things to another level

Last year, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) unveiled the Underground Master Plan, a plan detailing how the nation can make use of the potential in underground space to address the needs of a growing population and urban environment. These underground areas can be converted to transportation, utilities, warehousing and data centre facilities.

Here’s some food for thought. Would this space creation then have sufficient room for an interesting proposition, in the form of agriculture? It is perhaps an idea well worth looking into, in the pursuit of self-sustenance through securing local food production. This is not a new or radical concept. In fact, various forms of hydroponics and urban underground farming are already present in nations such as France, England and Bolivia. While Singapore may have land constraint issues, potential solutions can perhaps be found in techniques such as rooftop farming.

This seems to be very much the plan. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has recently launched tenders for urban farming sites, to be located on the rooftops of HDB multi-storey car parks. These spaces will be strictly allocated for agricultural purposes such as farming food crops and their storage. Additionally, a S$30 million grant[5] was announced to boost the production of commonly consumed food such as fish, vegetables and eggs.

After all, our agriculture sector clocks in at just a mere 0.02% of our GDP, as compared to sectors such as manufacturing (21%), finance (14%), and even construction (3.7%). Raising this number should be one of the main priorities as Singapore moves toward self-sufficiency in a post-COVID-19 world. 

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: "COVID-19 should make Singapore look at globalisation and food security differently" by Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong at the Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

[1] Worldometers (Mar 2020): Live statistics and coronavirus news

[2] The Straits Times (Mar 2020): Coronavirus: Scoot suspends most of its flights, more than 50 routes affected

[3] Nikkei Asian Review (Apr 2020): How the coronavirus is reshaping Asia's borders, business and trade

[4] Asia Times (Apr 2020): Cracks show in Singapore’s model Covid-19 response

[5] Channel News Asia (Apr 2020): New S$30 million grant to help Singapore farms speed up production of eggs, vegetables and fish


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