This was the view my partner and I woke up to last Saturday and Sunday, on a quick weekend getaway to Batam Island’s Nongsa beach, about a half-hour ferry ride from Singapore.
Whilst Batam in modern times is a place many Singaporeans unfortunately associate with second families, cheapish goods and now, a full-range shooting club, in the not-so-distant past it was, like Singapore, part of the Johor kingdom and then the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, home to significant settlements and trading posts.
20th century nation-state borders now carve this archipelago into Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, requiring a passport to hop from island to island, reminding me that politics is never new, just a continuation of human affairs since time immemorial. The way the Dutch and British inserted themselves into local and regional succession crises to establish strongholds was echoed about a decade later in Central Asia, leading to rather disastrous consequences we still see today. Whilst the Dutch were hardly models of gentle, benevolent behaviour, the impact of colonialism on this region is mercifully less devastating than in South Asia or Africa.
Geography, however, disregards arbitrary lines on a map telling you what passport you may or may not hold, or in fact, if you hold a passport at all. Humans have always been a migratory and nomadic species, moving ourselves in search of favourable conditions before settling. Much of the long arcs in our history have been about that search for optimal conditions, including valuable resources, and to the winners the spoils.
My own roots in this region are not particularly long or deep, 7 out of 8 of my great-grandparents were born and raised during the nadir of the Manchu Qing Empire in China, and fled to Nanyang in the early 20th century in search of a more stable life, even though objectively they were not poor, having been scholar-gentry landowners and merchants in the old country. They set themselves up in a new region, and their descendants have benefitted from their resourcefulness and determination. Will I, along with my cousins and our descendants, continue to sink roots deeper here?
Unclear. There are many structural challenges that we face in Singapore, not least an ageing population, ever-lowering TFR, rising sea levels, and perhaps more immediately, a potential engagement between the US and China that will see this entire region caught in the middle, whether we like it or not. Whilst this region has seen native empires such as the Srivijaya, Singhasari and Majapahit, its geographical constraints make it far more fertile ground for the mandala political model to flourish, as indeed it had in the past, and dealing diplomatically with larger powers to ensure our own survival is something we are quite familiar with (the “ASEAN Way”).
What does all this mean, from a futures perspective, for those of us with skin in the game?
Could we muster enough political and civic will to expand on SIJORI and create more growth triangles based more on natural, geographical boundaries, to the extent that development is less exploitative and more mutually beneficial?
Could we expand on mandalas to tackle hyperlocal and regional climate-related issues before they become more and more irreversible?
Could we embrace the sea even more than we have, to reimagine how we could, or may have to, live on it not away from it?
Is ASEAN still fit for purpose, or should we actively reimagine its future?
Today is is World Futures Day 2023. Let’s check back in 2024, shall we?
Excellent - great to see you writing long-form! Pleased to see the reference to the mandala model as well - keep it up!