Skirting Dystopia

By Jacqueline Poh

Dystopia is a common theme in science fiction, but what happens when it starts to describe our daily lives?

“The world is always ending, and the end is always averted, by love or foolishness or just plain old dumb luck.” – Neil Gaiman

In the peace-prosperity-progress narrative of post-Independence Singapore, we commonly measure our march towards the ideals of the age. High income. A liveable city. Social mobility. After the pandemic upheavals of 2020 and 2021, however, many conversations and media offerings tend towards Dystopia. Instead of approaching the vision and goals we aspire to, are we drifting closer to our fears? Might we be at the other place instead?

Dystopia is what happens when seemingly good things go bad, often through excess. Dystopia mirrors Utopia. Historically, imagined Dystopias have some of the following characteristics:

  • A brutal government controlling all aspects of economic and social existence. It derives legitimacy from protecting people from a known or unknown, real or imagined enemy, and deploying propaganda effectively to maintain it. (1984, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale) This often leads to a general loss of individualism and agency. (The Matrix, Uglies, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Never Let Me Go, The Trial)

  • A society marked by extreme inequality. There are castes, haves and have-nots and sometimes even finer gradations based on possession of scarce resources such as oil, money, land, slaves, or key technologies. (1984, Brave New World)

  • Technology that controls people and encourages the worst aspects of human nature, including tech-enabled surveillance and loss of privacy. (Black Mirror, Ready Player One, The Neuromancer, Parable of the Sower, I Robot)

  • A world living through the aftermath of environmental or biological disasters, sometimes nuclear catastrophe. (Children of Men—set in 2021 by the way, Drowned World, Do Androids Dream, Maze Runner, Blindness, The Stand)

It should be obvious why Dystopian visions are so common now.

Governments are exercising powers rarely called upon to manage the pandemic—lockdowns, mask mandates, state of emergencies. The pandemic is showcasing how unequal societies can be, with some safely working from home and reaping the benefits of soaring markets, while frontliners working in less safer, less secure workplaces. Inequality is even more evident between countries, some lacking vaccines and essential medical supplies, and others hoarding their excess. The end of unipolar stability is throwing up geopolitical uncertainties and dangers not seen for decades.

Digital disruption has given rise to fears of technological overreach with unintended consequences. Many are concerned that the speed by which new business and social models evolve exceeds human ability to establish mutually agreed governing principles. Our inability as humankind to effectively manage a global pandemic does not bode well for future catastrophic events like climate change. Fertility is bottoming out in many developed economies. Gaming and virtual/ augmented realities are making it easier to imagine an alternate reality disassociated from this world.

But we aren’t in a dystopia yet.

Governments are bigger, but also more vulnerable. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the case for a bigger government, because there are things that citizens, civil society and corporates cannot organise as efficiently as states. With trillions spent on support for citizens and economies all over the world, government intervention will remain for some time. There will be a need for more welfare support for the dispossessed, those whose jobs were threatened by digitalisation but obliterated by Covid-19, and for the health and mental health burden of victims in many countries.

But governments will not have an easy time exerting control if regarded by their own people as incompetent. Debt will be a challenge to manage in the years to come. The private and people sector has been instrumental in areas like vaccine development and caring for others in society. The Internet has generally generated more fake news than propaganda. In Singapore, we have learnt a great deal about the value of trust between a government and its people, the necessity for both competence and care and the importance of persuasion and clear communications, because our citizens get news from many sources.

Income and wealth inequality gaps were already widening before the pandemic. In many developed countries, rapid industrial change led by technology and globalisation enriched those with the right skill sets and disenfranchised those without. Covid-19 has arguably worsened the disparities in many countries between professionals who can work from home and frontline workers who cannot. In developing countries, the difference between blue, white and gold collar work is the difference between the vaccinated and unvaccinated; private hospitals and jets vs walking back to a village with limited healthcare facilities. A stock market boom amid economic devastation has emphasised the reality of economic inequality. Availability of vaccines between countries or the reserves needed to fight the economic recovery have underlined the differences between countries.

Singapore, like many countries, is leaning actively against the factors that exacerbate inequality. Nordic states with high levels of equality and taxation frequently top happiness indices. It takes policy initiative and effort to create more equal outcomes and more opportunities for all. Singapore’s Gini coefficient, at 0.43 (before government transfers), has been stable and more recently falling. Deliberate efforts are required, from making quality preschool and general education accessible, to expanding opportunities for tertiary education and lifelong learning and encouraging social mixing. We must also prevent the hoarding and transfer of wealth and privilege. This is work in progress.

Major advancements in technology have made ubiquitous services more possible, but also threaten the loss of privacy to companies and governments. Becoming a digital economy and society has many benefits. There is real value creation from reaching the unbanked, making access to information more timely, connecting people who otherwise might have lost touch with each other. Technologies like AI, blockchain, cloud, robotics, AR promise to enable decentralised trust, higher productivity and new realms of imagination. Big leaps in biotech have made possible changes to fertility, human augmentation and longevity. But here there are more clearly dystopian consequences around privacy, tracking and surveillance, the human cost of escaping into parallel universes, bioengineering and AI ethics, and job losses to automation.

Then again, global developments in human-centred technology policy have never been so exciting. Singapore is keeping a keen eye out for online harms and the risks of a digital society. Though it is challenging to keep up with cybersecurity risks, scams, accidental or intentional loss of data and privacy, mental health issues, and the proliferation of echo chambers which reduce common space in favour of global virtual networks, governments and civil society actors are actively enhancing their awareness and working with tech companies to generate solutions on the basis that technology works for humanity and not the other way around. In this area, dystopian fiction and films are effective pre-mortem scenarios of what would happen otherwise.

Finally, what about environmental, biological and other disasters? After more than a year with lockdowns bringing eerie sights of empty town squares, wild animals on the streets, tourist attractions devoid of visitors, and empty airports, it can feel like this dystopia is a lived reality. The drumbeat of forest-burning, iceberg-melting, hurricane- forming news can make it feel like climate-induced destruction is on the horizon. But we are not yet a wasteland. Even in the midst of this biological catastrophe (which still has considerable legs), life is returning after months of death, destruction and emotional scarring. People are working hard to find their way back to a range of social activities. When pushed hard to make possible some form of normality, science and supply chains have risen admirably to the challenge. Risk becomes priced into behaviours and expectations. The aftermath of a biological disaster will be short on zombies and long on public hygiene and changing work-life patterns.

The most encouraging thing about this pandemic is that it has accelerated commitment to avert a larger global climate disaster. Nations and corporations are falling over themselves to declare even more ambitious carbon emissions targets. In Singapore, we are planning for both adaptation and mitigation to climate change that is likely to have a much wider, deeper and more complicated impact.

Dystopian characteristics will pop up occasionally in pockets of time and space. Sometimes they last longer than expected and lead to some surreal occurrences. But there is room for optimism. Painting a dystopia helps us to make sense of our fears about contemporary socio-economic realities, so that we can understand the boundaries and limits of our worst-case scenarios. We do it to put up warning signs to caution others and advocate for a change of direction before we plunge off the edge. In mentally constraining our fears and realities, we say something about our own values and aspirations as a human race.

It is enough to be thankful that we are not there yet.

Jacqueline Poh is Deputy Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office Strategy Group. She currently oversees the National Population and Talent Division and the Centre for Strategic Futures. She’s a fan of digital technology, a better future for the elderly and likes good dystopian fiction.

GovInsider and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 contributors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on where Singapore is today, where we came from, and where we might be going.