Speaking Of Asia

Brexit poll: a sobering lesson for Asia

Politics let loose can be a dangerous thing; this region needs to resist a tide of xenophobia and isolationism

LONDON • A young British MP is brutally murdered in her constituency by a neo-Nazi type because she spoke up for immigrants and favoured her nation staying in the European Union. Days later, in Miri, Sarawak, a prominent opposition politician is gunned down in broad daylight as he waits in his car at a traffic intersection, a new edge added to Malaysia's troubled politics.

In the United States, the presumptive Republican Party front runner for the US presidential election is coarse of tongue, deeply divisive in his positions, stokes suspicions about Muslims and is on record saying he thought the United Kingdom should leave the EU because migration had been a "terrible thing" for the country.

In the UK, Mr Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party that campaigned for Britain to exit the EU, publishes a poster captioned "Breaking Point". It has a picture of a wave of anxious refugees, many with beards. The picture was apparently taken last year in Slovenia, whose border is some 1,600km from London. But the message was unmistakeable and shocked many Britons. J.K. Rowling called it "Nazi propaganda".

It is "nonsensical to pretend that racists and bigots aren't flocking to the 'Leave' cause, or that they aren't, in some instances, directing it", the celebrated author of Harry Potter books wrote on her blog.

A referendum, like an election, is a celebration of the democratic process. Inevitably, some base instincts surface in these things as private ambitions of a Himalayan scale are pursued.

Even so, the fight witnessed over Brexit can only be said to have raised mirrors to the darkest sides of the human personality. The tribal instincts, nationalism, xenophobia, isolationism and yes, violence, that it unleashed will linger on and be examined closely around the world.

Could this really be Great Britain, one of the earliest nations to experience, and profit, from globalisation? The British East India Company, founded in 1600, were early global traders. Global businesses were built on the back of Empire.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

If such a nation now wants to dig in its heels against these forces of globalisation, what of the rest of the world whose experience with the phenomenon is distinctly more contemporary?

The EU used to be held up as a model as we in Asia watched it expand from six nations to 10, then 12 and eventually 28 member states. With the exception of Greenland, which opted out as a Danish colony three decades ago but remains subject to EU treaties, no one had ever thought of quitting the union.

South-east Asian integration, which started in 1967, began with five nations grouped as Asean. This became six when Brunei joined in 1984 and has now grown to 10 members. South Asia, meanwhile, tried its own version, Saarc, albeit with less success. Now, the EU doesn't look so much like a winner anymore. We've been made aware that there is no sure bet about the integration process being one-way.

How did Britain come to this pass? As long as it suited its purpose of ensuring that there was no concentration of power in Europe, say a Franco-German one, Britain went along with the widening of EU membership. Winston Churchill, the lionised wartime prime minister, even once called for a "United States of Europe". But now that it is obliged to accept immigrants from the other 27 members, including nations like Romania, it is clearly uneasy. The sauce that was good for the British goose wasn't good for the British gander.

There's a lesson here. As long as globalisation is about selling goods and products, no one complains too much, provided trade doesn't favour one party overwhelmingly. But once countries began to push for trade in services and free movement of labour, unease sets in. And Britain is a net importer of goods and a net exporter of services.

What the Brexit debate and vote has shown us is that we can never wish away primeval fears such as fear of being "swamped by the other". When you combine these with economic realities such as stagnant wages and fears of reduced social welfare, you get an incendiary mix.

The exact pace of globalisation is hard to map, but Bulgarians, Romanians, Mexicans and, not to forget, Pakistanis and Indians, are easy to identify as villains of the show.

To an extent, perhaps we in South-east Asia may have already tacitly acknowledged this reality - that some things just cannot be rushed. See how the language on an Asean Economic Community has changed.

Not too long ago, the pitch was about developing a single market and production base. These days, we seem happier with less-ambitious formulations such as striving for a "highly integrated economy".

One lesson for Asia is how politics let loose can be the bane of social integration, with the potential to harm social compacts built up over decades. Last week, Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam took note of the anti-Muslim rhetoric in some Western nations arising from this. "In a multiracial country, there is political profit in dividing people, playing on race, religion, stoking up fears. It is really unacceptable and I think morally reprehensible," he said.

The other cautionary tale, especially for significant nations such as China, India, Japan and Indonesia, is to go easy on nationalism. In these days of fragmented loyalties, it may not be a bad thing to stress a national identity and character. But that's quite different from pushing an excessively nationalist agenda, which can be dangerous.

Just look at the domestic, nationalistic pressures China has to contend with over the South China Sea disputes, which threaten to harden China's position, and isolate it in a region that is its natural backyard.

This week, those ties went further south when Beijing drew Asean's largest member-nation into the South China Sea dispute by saying it has "overlapping claims" with Indonesia on waters around the Natunas.

It is a slippery slope when passion replaces reasoned argument. The political considerations that informed some in the Leave camp were all too evident when Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who is for Brexit, pronounced himself "sick of experts" after one credible voice after another stood up for the Remain argument.

More frightening, the Leave camp did not seem to care about the wider implications of Brexit. As this newspaper reported on Monday, pro-Europe Scotland could never accept Brexit without planning its own exit from the UK.

With the referendum done, Europe now has to work even harder to ensure that it does not lose so much of what it has gained in the past half-century.

Last week, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose grandfather fought in World War I and his own father in World War II, reminded readers in published newspaper advertisements that not a single bullet had been fired between the armies of EU member states. "I truly believe that one of the EU's greatest achievements is that it has kept its members out of conflict in Europe," he wrote.

The role of media, too, will need some scrutiny. Ms Jo Cox, the murdered MP, used to complain bitterly about the unrestrained hate messages she often got on social media from people who disagreed with her.

"It is not a big journey from saying horrible things to doing horrible things," Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who was a close friend of Ms Cox, told the BBC after her death. Good politicians like Ms Cox keep their constituents close. What if, because of fears over safety, that proximity will have to be restricted?

The boost the Leave campaign got from the mass-circulation Sun, owned by Mr Rupert Murdoch, has not been missed. In Liverpool last week, a cabbie who was for Remain expressed his deep anger at people being misled by this "American-owned Sun".

What skin did Mr Murdoch have in the Brexit game? According to London's Evening Standard newspaper, he once confessed he was so opposed to Europe because "when I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice".

It is an old quote and to be fair to the media tycoon, his other paper The Times had lent tenuous support editorially for Remain. Even so, it is a point worth pondering.

The recent vote is not the last word on European integration - or disintegration - only a key punctuation mark along the road. The gains by Germany's Alternative for Deutschland and Ms Marine Le Pen's National Front in France suggest that the winds of xenophobia and isolationism may be only just starting in the continent.

Asians need to put their heads together to ensure that not only are they insulated from the fallout, but also to make sure these trends do not consume them as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit poll: a sobering lesson for Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe