UPI: Unless you've read science fiction, it's pretty hard to keep up with the ever-quickening pace of the revolution in technology. From the newfound ability to create artificial life to the now visible horizon of new supercomputers -- IBM's latest can compute at the rate of 1,000 trillion operations per second, up from 73 trillion -- that will surpass the human brain in every respect, to the current fusion of IT, biotech, nanotech and robotics. Humanity appears to be morphing from homo sapiens to homo connectus in one generation. Where do you see humankind going in the 21st century?
Lee: I give up! Because I no longer understand, let alone relate. I didn't do science beyond high school, but at least I could understand the world around us, from totalitarian dictators out to rule the world to the pushback on freewheeling, anything-goes democracy. Now I read learned articles that don't tell me why all this new stuff is happening. I learn new words daily, like biopharmaceuticals and biologics and send them to my secretary for an explanation, and the answer comes back, from Google or somewhere on the Internet.
When I was in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) recently, I was watching a BBC documentary, a sparkling, fascinating talk by Craig Ventner, the human genome scientist, who covered the whole field of tomorrow in 50 brilliant minutes. I was transfixed by the part about creating artificial life. But I can't figure out what it all means and where are we going.
Q: You are not alone. Most political leaders in today's world have the same handicap. We already have 1 billion people online around the world and 2 billion mobile phones for 6.5 billion people, all providing information as well as disinformation, streaming video, chat rooms, blogs, which are rapidly reaching the 100 million mark. What does this tell you about the impact on democratic government, dictatorship and national sovereignty?
A: I think national sovereignty will be around for a long while because it is the framework for activities between states. The alternative is a free-for-all chaos in the world. Suppose you have dozens of countries going through the kind of mayhem you now see in Kenya, all the technological paraphernalia in the world won't be of much help. It would be back to the Stone Age.
Q: But as you were watching that BBC documentary what was going through your mind about where all this is leading?
A: I do not buy the optimistic jargon about a new age of enlightenment. But as I watched Dr. Ventner's prediction about carbon-free fuel, I say then what? You can desalinate all the oceans of the world, then what? And we will still have the overpopulation problem. My conclusion is there are certain moral and physical limits to what mankind can do on this small planet. If you begin with human history from the earliest tribes, we still haven't moved beyond instinctive responses.
Q: But what you were watching also told you that anyone born today will live to be 120 and productive almost until the end, and the 22nd century will see 250 years as a normal lifespan.
A: And then what! It makes no sense. Three score and 10 is not a bad span. Lead a good productive life and leave the future to your progeny. I fear the future for my grandchildren may not be as good as ours was. In Singapore, we now have in our physically limited space 4.5 million people, 3.2 million of them our citizens, the rest foreigners who came to work here. Our planners are projecting 6.5 million. Our planners and demographers can already see 6.5 million. I said to them, "Look, go slow. It can't be done in our small city state."
Q: Nanotechnology will enable us to build skyscrapers two to three times higher.
A: Not while I'm still around.
Q: You also have a brain drain?
A: Yes, we're losing them to America.
Q: Not China?
A: No, there they have to compete against 1.3 billion people producing huge numbers of very bright people. They'd rather go to America where they become acclimatized, then go to China with an American firm. Chinese speakers, they are part of an American team with a leg up on their Chinese competitors. And from there, they can come back to Singapore with the kind of experience that puts them at the top of their game. Those who seek less rigorous competition, a more relaxed lifestyle, go to Canada and Australia.
Q: How many top brains do you consider lost to Singapore every year?
A: At the top end, about 1,000 a year. That's a loss of 4 percent or 5 percent. But compensating that, we have Chinese and Indians coming here looking for better prospects. So on balance, we're still gainers. But the day will come when China, in 30 or 40 years, will offer better prospects than any country in the world.
Q: Switching to the future of capitalism the subprime mortgage predatory fiasco gave the entire world the vision of another great depression. Major banks in the U.S. and Europe lost close to $300 billion to this gigantic fraud.
A: From time to time, smart crooks get the better of people. They skewer the system. I don't believe you can find a substitute for democratic capitalism. Let's not forget the human being's desire to do well for himself/herself, his/her spouse, kids, parents. And then, when you do well, have compassion for one's fellow human beings who are behind the curve. The system that maximizes this is the system that also gives the highest motivation to do better. Mao's China experimented with the idea of a new human being, the super worker. It was an abysmal failure. But even at the height of the Communist folly, I went to China and one of our escorts took off his Mao jacket to show us it was fur-lined, a sign he was doing better than the others. Therefore, not equal.
I do not believe you can predict how human beings and societies will evolve. If we reach the point of global population saturation, we will have to craft new strategies to protect ourselves. Take Singapore. Yes, we want ASEAN, yes we want the European Union model. But supposing I said, "Yes, and we also want the Schengen Accord," which would mean any access to an Asian country in this new union would give you automatic, uncontrolled access to Singapore, and our people would laugh at me. There will, of course, be entities that will say to each other, "We're part of the same camp, or oasis, and we can share each other's assets." But I can't have people entering freely and setting up plastic tents in my garden. So when you reach an advanced state of development, what kind of an organization do you need? I frankly don't know.
Q: So how do you see the future of capitalism?
A: As chairman of the equivalent of our Sovereign Wealth Fund, we examine and decide where to invest our money, in equities or bonds or what have you. Our fund managers are paid five times what I get. Why? Because they have had good track records in growing our fund and we know what they could command in the private sector. They are dealing with billions of dollars every day and must be compensated accordingly.
Unbridled capitalism, winner takes all like in America, does not work unless you can cope with an underclass. So here we also stay with the losers, make sure they have enough to live on, with healthcare, equal education opportunities for their children whose parents can no longer afford it. It's very important they not feel abandoned. So we have workfare and ingenuous ways to keep them working as we don't want layabouts doing nothing. We also subsidize homes which they would not be able to buy. A society can only survive if there is a sense of equity and fair play.
Q: So to conclude, back to what concerns you most about the next 10 years, including WMD terrorism?
A: First whether America will face this next rough patch without losing heart. Afghanistan cannot succeed as a democracy, nor as a new state defying centuries of tradition. To remake societies is beyond the capacity of any nation. America as a superpower has global responsibilities -- but that's not one of them. Utopias have no place in geopolitics.
(Second of two parts)