Brexit: Why I voted Leave - A Singaporean in UK

The Leave campaign focused less on facts and figures and more on the intangibles and unquantifiables. Much attention was trained on issues such as national identity, uncontrolled immigration and the democratic deficit that resulted from being part of
The Leave campaign focused less on facts and figures and more on the intangibles and unquantifiables. Much attention was trained on issues such as national identity, uncontrolled immigration and the democratic deficit that resulted from being part of an European super-state. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There are parallels between Brexit and Singapore after Separation in 1965, says one writer, while two others argue that Brexit points to failings of the one man, one vote system.

UNEXPECTED OUTCOMES

Like many others living in London, I woke up last Friday morning to the shock that was Brexit - a most unexpected revelation that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union (EU).

As a Singaporean (and thus, a Commonwealth citizen) now residing in Britain, I was allowed to participate in the referendum, and indeed I exercised my right on polling day, when I voted for Leave.

This may come as a surprise to those who know me. After all, I do not fit neatly into the stereotype of the average Brexiter (that is, lacking higher education, of a lower-income bracket and British-born, as a comprehensive analysis of voter demographics from The Guardian newspaper revealed). In fact, you could say I am the very antithesis of that stereotypical voter profile. So why would I vote for Leave when, arguably, I have benefited most from EU membership?

I would like to reiterate that the decision was not an easy one, and certainly not one I took lightly. In the run-up to polling day, the Remain campaign had made abundantly clear their stance that a vote for Brexit was a vote for uncertainty over certainty, that jobs would be lost, wage growth would stall, the pound would collapse and inflation would surge as a result.

 

Businessmen and bureaucrats from all across the country warned that the average British family would be thousands of pounds worse off each year - money we could all ill-afford to lose in these challenging and austere times - and a barrage of statistics to support these claims were unleashed upon the public.

In contrast, the Leave campaign focused less on facts and figures and more on the intangibles and unquantifiables. Much attention was trained on issues such as national identity, uncontrolled immigration and the democratic deficit that resulted from being part of an European super-state.

Thinking about how I arrived at my decision to vote Leave, it's not that I didn't believe the Remain campaign's warnings of economic hardship (although like many of my generation, I have certainly grown mistrustful of politicians over the years).

 

Rather, while there was no doubt that Brexit would be detrimental (particularly to Londoners) in the short term, I had faith in the resourcefulness of the British people to identify and iron out any issues in the long run.

Furthermore, I was struck by a number of parallels between the Britain-EU relationship and that of Singapore and Malaysia prior to Separation. In both, there is a lack of a common culture or unified identity. There is a pernicious bureaucracy of the larger economic entity that is holding back, indeed stifles, business and innovation of the smaller territory.

I asked myself how I would vote if Singapore were in this situation. I arrived at the conclusion, as Dr Goh Keng Swee no doubt did in 1965, that a painful but swift divorce was preferred to a long and unhappy marriage.

Ultimately, while the risk-averse, selfish side of me was inclined to vote for the status quo - to preserve economic stability and to boost the immediate value of my sterling-denominated savings and investments - I was swayed by Leave's uplifting message of optimism that despite the risks and uncertainty, Britain was better off being the master of its own destiny, unshackled from an EU that lacked democratic legitimacy.

It was, in some ways, almost a triumph of hope over fear.

Upon reflection, I found myself echoing the sentiments of billionaire financier and prominent Leave supporter, Mr Peter Hargreaves, who drew parallels between Britain's exit from the EU and Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965. He noted how Singapore metamorphosed from "a mosquito-infested swamp" into "the greatest economy in the world" with nothing more than "people with brains and hands", and posited that the British people could rise to the occasion and do the same.

He had noted of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore: "When he took power, Singapore was a mosquito-infested swamp with no natural resources, but he turned it into the best economy in the world. It's a bit of a clinical place, but it shows what a small country with limited resources can do. And we are much bigger and have more resources. Britain will be far better off as an independent nation."

LESSONS LEARNT

As the dust settles in the coming days and weeks, there will surely be no shortage of subject-matter experts analysing and dissecting the Brexit result for lessons to be learnt (and perhaps applied to any number of EU referendums threatening to emerge across Europe).

And while I am certainly no political pundit, I would offer up a few observations of my own. The first is that in a world of rapidly changing economic fortunes, no doubt accelerated by technological disruption, governments need to be seen as doing more to address the widening gulfs between the winners and losers of globalisation and capitalism in general. The fact that there was such a clear correlation between socio-economic status and voting preference in the referendum suggests that the vote was as much determined by people's wallets as it was by their hearts and minds.

The second point is that policymakers need to recognise the importance of "feeling" over "fact" when addressing their electorate. Humans do not behave like the hyper-rational spreadsheet-modelling omniscient being portrayed in most economics textbooks. And that is why I think the Remain campaign's focus on the economic angle was misguided: its attempt to appeal to cold, hard, unfeeling reason could never be matched by the passion and nationalistic fervour inherent in the Leave campaign. Furthermore, by repeatedly reminding the public that Brexit would cost each household 4,300 pounds (or about S$8,500), per annum, the Remain camp effectively attached a specific, relatively low monetary cost (about 100 pounds per person per month) to the very unspecific but arguably priceless notion of sovereignty and self-determination.  

The last point I would make is that as the children of a hard-won peace and prosperity, we Singaporeans should guard our political and economic independence jealously. Just as Britain's democratic deficit as part of the EU proved unsustainable, the UK's persistent fiscal and trade deficits have also made the country reliant on famously fickle foreign investment and borrowing to balance the books (and may ultimately be its economic undoing). For me, Brexit serves as a timely post-SG50 reminder that even as we should continue to engage and embrace our global neighbours and partners to work jointly on issues such as trade and security, we must never surrender our right to be shepherds of our own fate.  

In closing, I would like to offer our British counterparts a few words of encouragement and best wishes for the future. While the road ahead may be fraught with uncertainty, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. With grit, determination and the right attitude, far more has been achieved with far less, as the Singaporean example will attest. Mind the gap, but keep calm and carry on. 

•The writer is co-founder of 31-East.com, a start-up that aims to tackle waste, corruption and inefficiency in the property sector.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Voted to Leave, inspired by 1965 Separation'. Print Edition | Subscribe