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Covid-19 should make Singapore look at globalisation and food security differently

Globalisation brings many benefits to small city-states like Singapore. But Covid-19 shows that the risk of a major supply chain disruption has inflated, and the assumptions of free trade and access rights can be held hostage to domestic politics.

Panic-buying, empty supermarket shelves and hoarding of essential items are just some of the knee-jerk reactions of a public concerned over potential shortages.

Panic-buying, empty supermarket shelves and hoarding of essential items are just some of the knee-jerk reactions of a public concerned over potential shortages.

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Globalisation brings many benefits to small city-states like Singapore.

Close to a quarter million, or about 6 per cent of the population, reside overseas for a variety of reasons. Overseas Singaporeans are the conduit to international markets and a hallmark of Singapore’s internationalisation.

In the first three months of 2020, however, droves of Singaporeans returned home as the Covid-19 outbreak spread rapidly across the world. A few hundred of them inadvertently brought the virus that causes the disease home.

At one point, the number of “imported” cases outpaced that of “local” infections, imparting a sense of unease that challenged the glossy narrative around globalisation.

BALANCING TRADE-OFFS

The approach to global talent migration is not without cost. On the one hand, Singaporeans are exhorted to work and live abroad to gain international perspectives. On the other hand, many settle down and out down their roots in foreign soil. 

Encouraging Singaporeans to go abroad is based on the premise that they will return home one day, but how to account for the cost of a “brain drain” when Singapore’s top talent leave our shores?

We believe (or assume) most Singaporeans will come home one day. Even if they do not, they serve as a bridge with our global trading partners abroad. The risk is manageable, as long as they are imbued with a sense of loyalty and carry the Singapore flag proudly.

The approach to the internationalisation of trade and industries follows a similar road map.

Singapore’s shift in the 1980s from export manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy was engineered to give a boost to innovation and service industries.

Labour-intensive and traditional non-competitive sectors such as farming and agriculture were phased out, and the concept of a global, cosmopolitan city was entrenched.

GLOBALISATION AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments, businesses and communities to rethink their boundaries. National and state borders have been reinstituted, and cross-border movement of people, goods and services has been curtailed.

The severe disruption to global supply chains has thrown businesses into disarray. While lockdowns have forced citizens to stay home, migrants have been pushed back to their home towns — overseas Singaporeans included.

Panic-buying, empty supermarket shelves and hoarding of essential items are just some of the knee-jerk reactions of a public concerned over potential shortages. As the pandemic takes its toll, societies turn inward and border divisions are reinforced.

Singapore, which depends on the import and export of goods and services, finds itself in an especially precarious situation. Up to 90 per cent of the country’s food supply is imported.

The decision by the Malaysian Government to abruptly close its borders triggered panic-buying in Singapore.

As a global city-state, Singapore counts on the international rule of law for security and access to economic resources. The country has forged over 22 free trade agreements that span across numerous continents.

With the growing likelihood of a prolonged crisis, how long can these arrangements be expected to hold up? With the spectre of export restrictions by trading partners, open and connected supply chains can no longer be taken for granted.

The Government has reassured Singaporeans there is adequate food stocks. Singapore has diversified its food sources over the years and the country’s food imports come from over 170 countries and regions around the world, up from 160 in 2007.

Plans are also afoot to increase local primary production under an ambitious 30-by-30 goal to produce enough food here to meet 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030.

Notwithstanding this, rapid climate change and an increasingly protectionist trade environment will pose challenges to Singapore’s long-term food security. 

Covid-19 shows that the risk of a major supply chain disruption has inflated, and the assumptions of free trade and access rights can be held hostage to domestic politics.

The move by dozens of countries to ban exports of surgical masks and personal protection equipment in the wake of the pandemic and the global shortage of masks is a case in point.

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

Just as overseas Singaporean students have been summarily turned out of their university campuses, and forced to face the realities of a Covid-19 world of borders and restrictions to movement, so must Singapore confront the reality of a shrinking world.

It is a fact that Singapore faces severe land constraints, and adding agriculture to the list is a challenge to resource allocation. Conventional solutions that have been discussed have focussed on using technology and vertical as well as rooftop farming.

Last year, the Underground Master Plan was unveiled by the Urban Redevelopment Authority on how the city-state can unlock the use of underground space for the country’s growing population, including facilities that can be served underground, such as transportation, utilities, warehousing, and storage.

Could farming be added to that list?

The concept is not new. Hydroponics and urban underground farming can be found in France, England, and Bolivia, and similar farms are in the pipeline in Sweden and Wales.

This would require a paradigm shift in assigning greater emphasis on domestic self-reliance over global, economic efficiency

The argument for globalisation is grounded in the idea of a comparative advantage. Countries should engage in economic activities only where they have an edge over others, and Singapore has faithfully followed this principle for the past 50 years. 

Covid-19 has forced us to reassess the fragile assumption of free trade and open borders.

Admittedly, we may never be totally self-sustaining in food production or other areas. Being a small city-state means that global trade is our life-line and there is no alternative.

But the lessons of this Covid-19 pandemic should at least force us to rethink our priorities in light of global risk. And food, like other daily necessities of life, must be a pillar of national importance, similar to medical supplies or national defence. 

Our agriculture sector stands at just 0.02 per cent of our economic output, in sharp contrast to manufacturing (21 per cent), finance (14 per cent), and even construction (3.7 per cent). 

There is clearly room to increase this representation in our national economy.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: 

Leong Chan-Hoong is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences. Yang Wai Wai is Head of Communications and Research at the Singapore Institute of Directors.

Related topics

food security globalisation Covid-19 coronavirus free trade agriculture economy supply chain

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