Thanks, world, for bubble tea and bagels

With a slowdown in global trade and the rise of anti-globalisation rhetoric in domestic politics, there has been a growing chorus of voices announcing the advent of what has come to be known as "deglobalisation". A recent article in The Wall Street Journal warns that "politics, economics and finance are combining in a way that threatens to throw globalisation in reverse".

Such a view is misguided at best, and misleading at worst. Globalisation simply cannot be "reversed" or "undone".

The deglobalisation discourse was sparked by Brexit - the referendum in June in which Britain voted to leave the European Union. Brexit was followed by a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in other EU member states such as France, Austria and the Netherlands, with right-leaning political parties espousing anti-immigration rhetoric.

Such rhetoric is not limited to Europe. As the rise of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has shown, there is growing public discontent with immigration, and more calls for protectionism and the closing of borders.

Singapore is not immune to such views. A small but vocal group of Singaporeans have been expressing anti-immigrant views, online and offline.

While such views and voices are indeed a form of revolt against the cross-border movement of people that has accompanied globalisation, it is incorrect to frame these as an outright rejection of globalisation.

To address some of the negative policy implications and benefit from the positive ones, there is a need to understand globalisation in its totality and look beyond its economic to its socio-cultural benefits. Indeed, some of the solutions to one image of globalisation, such as anti-immigration views, may well be found in another image of the same phenomenon - cross-border socio-cultural exchanges.

In most instances, such debates tend to be focused on the state's ability to address issues associated with growing population density, inadequate social integration or income inequality. These are essentially domestic policy issues.

Much of the debate also reflects the opportunistic efforts of right-wing parties seeking to ride on, or stir up, public discontent, to improve their election chances.

The fact that there is discontent over this facet of globalisation - widespread global movement of people - does not suggest that the world has become any less global.

MISREADING SYMPTOMS
But what about The Wall Street Journal's claim that declining trade figures and slowing momentum for free trade agreements (FTAs) are signs of a broader deglobalisation?

First, the decline in global trade can be attributed to ongoing economic weakness in the US and EU, as well as an economic slowdown in China. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund has projected "subdued" global economic growth of 3.1 per cent for this year. This is largely in line with similar past projections of 3.3 per cent last year and 3.8 per cent in 2014.

Contrary to recent discourse, the decline in global trade should not be seen as an indicator or symptom of deglobalisation, but rather a consequence of slowing global growth. Even if populist politics were to result in heightened protectionism, its impact on global trade would take time to materialise. Furthermore, stalled negotiations over FTAs have more to do with political differences and administrative delays than economic protectionism.

While the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership is awaiting ratification from Congress, the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is facing difficulties with integrating countries that are not currently embedded within the Asean Plus framework, such as India.

There has, therefore, been a misreading of the decline in global trade and stalling of FTA negotiations, with both incorrectly attributed to a perceived decline in globalisation and a corresponding rise in protectionism.

BEYOND ECONOMIC GLOBALISATION
Much of the existing discourse on globalisation has focused on its economic dimensions, such as expanded global trade or global mobility of talent. In instances where political scientists have taken an interest in globalisation, the focus has very much been on security-related matters such as terrorism or climate change.

However, globalisation is a highly complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Aside from economic globalisation, there are political, social and cultural aspects to globalisation.

Not only has globalisation facilitated the free movement of people and money, it has also driven the spread of ideas, cultures and technologies. This is especially so with the advent of the Internet and social media.

Indeed, there has been an international transfer of ideas and solutions, with businesses and policymakers frequently looking to other countries and contexts for solutions and technologies to address the issues and problems that they face. At an everyday level, the growing ubiquity of bubble-tea shops in Boston, or the Jewish origins of the American bagel, suggests a significant extent of cultural cross- fertilisation as cities become increasingly globalised.

IMAGES OF GLOBALISATION
But these socio-cultural-political aspects of globalisation tend to be underemphasised, with more attention placed on the economic implications and consequences of globalisation. Similarly, the growing debate on "deglobalisation" emphasises the economic indicators, or signs of an increasingly "deglobalised" world. While globalisation is in reality a multifaceted phenomenon, much of this discourse has chosen to focus on one aspect of it.

In policy studies, this has been described as over-focusing on one "image" of a policy issue. In reality, there are multiple images to any given policy issue.

In the case of globalisation, public attention has mostly focused on the socio-demographic image of globalisation - large-scale immigration - while policymakers have overly emphasised the economic image of globalisation - trade figures.

In both instances, the role of globalisation as a catalyst of socio-cultural innovation and cross-fertilisation has not been sufficiently emphasised.

In fact, it is often this socio- cultural image of globalisation that has far-ranging and long-term implications for a city's development, and hence on people's lives, whether in terms of encouraging artistic or culinary endeavours, or stimulating business innovations.

To address some of the negative policy implications and benefit from the positive ones, there is a need to understand globalisation in its totality and look beyond its economic to its socio-cultural benefits. Indeed, some of the solutions to one image of globalisation, such as anti-immigration views, may well be found in another image of the same phenomenon - cross-border socio-cultural exchanges.


  • The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, and a Rajawali Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Thanks, world, for bubble tea and bagels'. Print Edition | Subscribe